A live fire training exercise got a little out of hand Friday morning and turned into a real operation.
The fire, set in a vacant house at 37 Popes Lane, took off and the firefighters inside, who were training on how to attack it, were instead ordered out of the building.
“Everybody out! Everybody out!” the call came over the radio. At that moment, the drill was no longer a drill.
But inside was Town Manager Steve Bartha, 37, manning a hose line to get a better idea of what firefighters do. He got a little more than he bargained for.
Bartha had been invited to participate in the Fire Department’s training exercise that day by fire Capt. Brian Barry, president of the local firefighters’ union. Such live fire drills are rare nowadays, in part because it’s rare that a house becomes available for training.
On Friday, Bartha and other firefighters walked out of the house unscathed, but not before the town manager helped direct water on the flames.
“We had a significant fire in the second-story bedroom of the A-B corner,” Barry said after the drill was over. “By the time we got to the top of the stairs, you could see the fire was rolling out the window across the roof in the bedroom. We felt some real heat at the doorway.”
Crews, with Bartha manning the line, hit the fire with water and knocked it back.
“Then a decision was made to back out and let the guys from outside hit it with a little water, and then the crews went back in and overhauled and extinguished the rest of the fire,” Barry said.
Was the decision to evacuate the result of having Bartha along?
“We didn’t want to break the town manager,” Barry replied.
“You did promise to return me whole,” Bartha reminded him.
On the job
Bartha’s brush with intense heat was actually his second hands-on experience in a town department, and both involved use of a fire hose.
On Thursday, he used a fire hose to help clean a cold, dank, 150,000-gallon sedimentation basin under the water treatment plant on Lake Street in Middleton. The plant processes 3.5 million gallons of water a day.
It was like going from cold to hot, Bartha said of the two experiences. Both, he said, were eye-opening and valuable.
When firefighters get it right, they save lives and everyone knows it, Bartha said. “When Jason McCarthy (the water plant manager) gets it right, you never know about it.”
Bartha said McCarthy invited him to clean the sedimentation basins to learn more about the water treatment plant.
About 600,000 gallons of water sit in those sedimentation basins under the plant waiting to be treated, and every other year crews have to go down and muck them out.
“So, I got to go to confined-space training to get ready for that,” Bartha said. McCarthy, he said, is passionate about providing clean water, and people may not realize when they turn on their taps what it takes to get water clean enough to drink.
Preparing to meet the heat
On Tuesday, Bartha spent an hour at fire headquarters on High Street to learn how to put on firefighting gear, including a breathing mask, and what each piece of equipment does.
“I learned a tremendous amount at the station,” he said, including listening to firefighters debriefing after an earlier training exercise.
“It’s easy to sit in an office and imagine what it’s like to have to respond to a call and not know what you are showing up to,” he said. “But the chance to see their work through their eyes was appealing.”
Barry and fire Chief Robert Pyburn said live fire training is vital for firefighters who actually experience few fires due to better fire codes, building construction and code enforcement.
At the state fire academy, firefighters train in concrete buildings so there is no chance of the fire getting into the walls and ceiling.
“This is about as real as it gets without the actual life-safety adrenaline rush that you would get at an actual scene,” Barry said.
Burning down the house, not!
Firefighters have been practicing fire “evolutions” on the two-story, three-bedroom house on Popes Lane every Friday, but their purpose actually was not to burn it down.
The house had to be prepared for fire training. Any asbestos or oil tank had to be removed, and they had to get approval for the live fire training from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
They wanted to keep the house intact as much as possible to continue to train on it next week.
The use of the house for fire training was thanks to its owner, DiLuigi Foods. Its sausage and prepared foods plant sits next to the house. The company plans to tear it down to expand the plant. Crews have been practicing at the plant on Fridays this month because DiLuigi Foods does not make deliveries on that day.
“I think Steve did well,” Barry said of the town manager’s firefighting skills. “I stayed right by his side. He had two other guys on the line with him. He was safe at all times and we kept clear, face-to-face communication to make sure he was as comfortable as you can be in that environment.”
“You could see the fire when we were approaching in the truck,” Bartha said, “And taking the hose up the stairs you could see nothing, and I had the guys explain to me where the wall was, where we were moving. The door opened and you could feel the heat come out, and I was saying to Brian I felt like I’m sort of randomly swinging the hose, and he said, ‘That’s fine, because as soon as that water was in the room, it’s turning into mist and it’s starting to tamp down the fire.'”
Getting out of the office
Bartha said these two experiences have helped him better understand what the water and fire departments do.
“This has been one of the best week’s of work I’ve had in a long time,” he said.
As long as a town department extends an invitation to him to be hands-on, he’s going to do it, he said. He is looking into obtaining a hoisting license so he can drive a tractor for the Recreation Department.
“I asked the police chief today what he had for me, and his first offer was taze me, and I said I was probably going to decline that one.”