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Ready to fight: Fire volunteers practice skills on Beltzville structure

Dozens of firefighters and emergency personnel stood by as the former dam operator house in Beltzville burned to the ground on a Saturday afternoon in late March.

But rest assured, the building had served a greater purpose in going up in flames — providing a series of lessons on firefighting protocol in a real-world setting.

“Today, we are all engaged in a structural burn class,” Franklin Township Fire Company Lt. Eric Lilly said.

“We have an acquired building that the Army Corps of Engineers was going to abandon, and they were generous enough to donate the building to us for active fire training for multiple departments that we have here today.”

Starting in the morning, the house was strategically set aflame by Pennsylvania State Fire Academy instructors and volunteers. Teams of volunteer firefighters from Franklin, Lehighton, Towamensing, Walnutport and Polk took turns running drills throughout the day, sharpening their skills for real emergencies.

“We had several stations that everybody worked on today. There was an engine company, which goes inside and does the actual attack, there were search companies that were going in without hand lines looking for victims. We did a ventilation crew to help vent the fire through the roof or exterior. There was RIT, Rapid Intervention Team, they’re there to back up in case a firefighter would run into a problem. They’re a rapid team that would get inside the building and help extricate those firefighters. Lehighton ambulance is also here. They sent volunteers out to assist us with vitals, and to make sure all the firefighters are safe throughout the day,” Lilly said.

First time in burning building

For some volunteers, like Tanner Eckert, it was the first time in a structure fire. As a volunteer at Lehighton for more than five years, Eckert just recently came of age to participate in interior firefighting, and he valued the opportunity to practice in a controlled environment.

“It’s interesting. We train for so long, and when you finally get in there, you finally see your training come into effect. Everybody says we train like we fight, because we fight like we train, and we go harder,” Eckert said.

“Not many people get that chance for their first one, so I really appreciate it. It gives you that extra training.”

The Pennsylvania State Fire Academy set the procedures for the training regimen, and numerous instructors were on hand to help with the program and ensure the safety of the students.

“We were here for everybody’s safety, that’s number one,” instructor Steven Schneider said.

“Here, theoretically, if you’re not watching things, things could fall down, people could fall through the floor, walls could fall down. It’s a slightly unpredictable environment, but it’s what’s realistic in the street.”

Since the Army Corps of Engineers was no longer using the building, they felt it could do some good for the local volunteer fire companies.

“We try to work hand in hand as much as we can with our first responders. Franklin Township has been very good to us over the years, and we try to return the favor any time we can. This building was the former dam operator’s residence. Years ago, dam personnel was required to live on site here,” Army Corps of Engineers head dam operator Josh Dinko said.

“Rather than demo it, we gave them the opportunity to do a demolition by prescribed fire. It’s a win for everyone. It’s a great training exercise for them, to have an opportunity to go into a building with a live fire and simulate the closest thing to a live event that they could get to. For us, it’s a cost-effective measure, it’s a lot cheaper than doing a full-fledged demo.”

Eric Lilly had invested a significant amount of time preparing for the burn. Over the course of two years, Lilly and his fellow firefighters plowed through paperwork, evaluations, building modifications and training to make the burn happen. The Department for Environmental Protection had to make sure that fuel sources were removed from the building. Asbestos abatement had to be performed. Equipment had to be removed and utilities had to be eliminated. Firefighters had to essentially rebuild the home to replicate a real-world environment.

It was a hefty amount of work, but it was well worth it.

Real-life situations

“We have burn facilities around the area, in Allentown and up the line, but those are concrete buildings that are designed with metal doors, metal windows.

To actually get into a residential home with a regular floor plan, like we’re used to seeing when we go into fires, and searching through those homes and seeing how the fire reacts in a wood-frame building versus a concrete building, it’s totally different and totally valuable for these younger guys,” Lilly said.

The event served an incredibly valuable purpose for the volunteers, as Carbon County has no fire school. Volunteers looking for experience and certification would have to venture upward of 30 to 45 minutes away from their home bases for lessons, often at the cost of their own time and their departments’ funding.

But with the structure burn at the dam operator’s house, all those who participated were able to get their structural burn certification, which is one step in the process to get Firefighter One certification. This, in turn, can help a company obtain more grants and funding.

“Not many people get that chance for their first one, so I really appreciate it. It gives you that extra training.”

Once the final drill was complete, the volunteers and instructors loaded what remained of the building with pallets to stoke the burn. As the roof caved in and the aluminum siding peeled away and melted, ash-covered firefighters took a well-deserved pizza break.

Lilly said that he hopes for more opportunities like this in the future, so that his crew, along with other first responders, can hone their lifesaving craft in realistic environments.

“It actually helps save lives on the firefighters’ end, by getting in the practice to do this,” he said.

“It’s a practice I hope we can continue to do, and I would actually like to see it done more often, to be honest. This is what we see in real life.”

Firefighters practice ventilation techniques during a structure burn class at the old Beltzville dam operator’s home in March. Members of Franklin, Lehighton, Towamensing, Walnutport and Polk companies came out to perform drills in a live scenario that reflected what they would run into on the job. Scan this photo with the Prindeo app to see a video and photo gallery of the event.
ABOVE: The dam operator’s home was set ablaze multiple times throughout the day for volunteers to practice different aspects of firefighting, including hose use.
The building went through more than a dozen burns to accommodate the firefighters’ training sessions.
LEFT: A lone firefighter exits the smoky structure.BRIAN W. MYSZKOWSKI/TIMES NEWS
Volunteers begin loading pallets in the house in order to burn it down completely at the end of the day. BRIAN MYSZKOWSKI/TIMES NEWS