The staff of the West Virginia State Fire Academy at Weston has a couple of centuries of combined experience in fighting fires. And over the course of many weekends of intense discussion and training a couple of topics come to the fore.
First and foremost is how a firefighter can learn from the experiences of those who fought fires before him. Second is how changes in technology and building materials and methods can affect a firefighters job and safety and a third factor is that the fire being fought has no idea if a fireman is a member of a department with paid professionals or is a member of a volunteer fire department, so the training is all the same.
“A structure fire can’t tell the difference if a guy is paid or is on a volunteer department,” echoed Tom Miller on Saturday after the firemen had gone into a burning trailer and put out a burning car.
“That is why the training is the same training we give to the big departments like Charleston.”
Tom Miller, Matt Reed, Mike Hart, Ed Taylor, Randy James and Director Mark Lambert have gone over the equipment, drills, skills tests and more over the course of eight weekends with visiting firefighters from across the state. In addition to live fire drills and physical skills tests the firefighters will have to pass written testing as well.
Some of the most important information they have endowed the students with are things you never see on tv or hear about in the movies or newspapers. Matt Reed in particular goes over the difference between the ways fires respond to older structures built in the 40 s and 50s and the way they respond to structures built today.
He points out that modern buildings — especially mobile homes and prefabricated buildings make use of synthetic materials and building materials like particle board — which tend to burn faster than traditional materials. They also have other problems for firefighters.
A particle board floor will give way faster making it more apt for a fireman to fall through than a hardwood floor. Some types of ceiling construction in mobile homes and other structures using the newer materials are faster to give way and fall in.
“When the glue in the particle board heats up it can melt and become flammable too,” Reed adds on a day when many different examples of building materials are shown to the firemen.
“Because of some really bad incidents in past fire department’s history, the fire service has realized there were better ways to do things,” Reed said, noting knowledge of home and building construction and fabrication can affect how a firefighter can respond to a structure fire.
Because of these factors the way you fight a fire has had to change, he explained.
Reed said many years ago there was no mandated training and firefighters had to learn on the job and from their mistakes.
“My first turn out gear that I wore for five years was my dad’s old turn out geear that he had for like 15 years,” Reed said, noting the gear had changed dramatically too.
“Several years ago firemen got newer and better turnout gear that protected them better. So they could fight fires more aggressively,” he explained. “That is when it became common to run in to a burning building and fight the fire. You could do that. But then, when they started using more synthetics and plastics in home construction and furnishing what they found is that you had less time before a possible flashover,” Mike Hart explained.
Hart said many salty old timers still feel a fireman needs to rush into a building when in fact the newer structures are best being approached from the outside and not by risking going in.
“But it can be hard to get the older guys to see that,” he said.
Reed pointed out that in the old days most things in people’s homes were made of natural materials — like wood, stone or glass — that had slower burning rates. “These days our homes are full of plastic,” he said, noting plastics are petroleum based.
“Firefighters have to develop a Culture of Safety if they want to avoid becoming a statistic,” Matt Reed said.
The West Virginia State Fire Academy has been located in Weston WV since 2008. Previously it was located in Morgantown.
J.D. Charles is a freelance writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner.