December 15, 2005
Some students would rather run into a burning building than take a final exam. Others run into a burning building for their final exam.
That was the case for 13 Magna Vista and seven Martinsville High School juniors and seniors who gathered Wednesday morning at the Henry County Public Safety's burn building for the culmination of firefighting classes offered at both schools.
"Today's their play day," said instructor Robert Scott, a member of the Ridgeway Volunteer Fire Department. "They get to put everything they've learned in the classroom to use. They actually get to fight fire."
After suiting up in heavy fireproof jackets and pants, yellow hard hats and oxygen tanks and masks, students were divided into teams of two, three or four to battle propane blazes in the training facility's two burn rooms, which replicate a kitchen and a bedroom.
"We tell them if two go in, two come out. If three go in, three come out, just like in the real world," said Scott.
As they readied themselves to enter the building, the students lined up single file, clutched their hoses and got down on their hands and knees.
"The first rule is, you can stand up as long as you can see your feet. If not, you get down low," Scott explained.
When the door to the burn building opened, the students crawled forward, keeping a hand on a wall at all times so they would not get lost in the smoky blackness.
Upon arriving at the room with the fire, the students opened the door slowly and then attacked the flames, periodically rotating so that each team member had a turn at the hose nozzle.
"The bed was to the right, all in flames, which were rolling over on the ceiling. My mask was fogging up so I couldn't see anything -- it was crazy," said Derrick Quesinberry, 17, a Martinsville High School junior.
"It definitely was intense," added 16-year-old Josh Stultz, also a junior at Martinsville. "Downstairs you could see the fire up on the ceiling."
Despite the realistic nature of their first firefighting experience, Scott said the students were not in danger. Not only were the students supervised by several experienced firefighters, they also were protected by the numerous safety features of the burn building, which extinguish the fires at any sign of trouble.
"You basically have to try to get hurt," Scott said.
In addition, the students had undergone many hours of training to prepare them for the experience, meeting for 90 minutes each day with Scott, who bases his instruction on the Virginia Department of Fire Programs' firefighter training.
That classroom instruction, plus the live fire drill and two field trips to the burn building for hands-on experience using oxygen tanks and masks and applying ventilation techniques, prepares students for a firefighting certification exam. It will be administered in January.
If the students pass the test, they will be qualified to join fire departments, first as junior members and then, once they turn 18, as full-fledged firefighters.
Fifteen graduates of the class, which is in its second year, have joined local fire departments, said Scott.
Several members of Scott's current classes said they plan to follow in their footsteps. One of those is Kenny Curry, 17, a Martinsville junior who volunteers with the Dyers Store Volunteer Fire Department.
Given his interest in firefighting, Curry said Wednesday's training exercise only made him all the more eager for the real thing.
"It was neat to actually go into a whole room that's on fire," he said. "It wasn't as much heat as I expected but you've got to get your feet wet somehow. It's all part of the training process."
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