HAZLETON, Pa. - The ground floor of the church hall began to fill with gray smoke.
It billowed from a machine in large plumes, filling up the ground floor in minutes and eventually making it impossible to see. Members of Hazleton Fire Department, McAdoo Fire Co. and Freeland Fire Department walked through the scene before the entire ground floor was consumed with smoke to analyze the layout of the floor at Holy Trinity Slovak Church hall, Wyoming Street, Hazleton.
Usually, firefighters don't have the advantage of a walk-through prior to responding to an emergency, Hazleton firefighter John McNeal said.
Sunday, however, was a little different.
About 25 firefighters, including about 10 junior firefighters, in full gear trained with new equipment which focuses on the safety of firefighters and allows them to make quicker rescues when one of their own is injured.
Hazleton Deputy Fire Chief Brian Mandak gave the firefighters an overview of the training before sending them to the first floor to see the layout.
The purpose of the walk-through, he said, was to familiarize the firefighters with their surroundings so they could focus on using the equipment.
"...Because I'll tell you what, once we smoke it, it's a whole different building," Mandak told the firefighters.
In 2007, Hazleton Fire Department and McAdoo Fire Co., were awarded a cooperative federal grant to purchase new air packs for firefighters. Both decided to get Scott air packs which came equipped with Pak-trackers. Freeland was awarded the same grant in 2008 and purchased the same equipment.
Hazleton Fire Chief Donald Leshko said when a firefighter isn't moving for about minute a loud, chirping sound begins to emit from a small black box on the air packs. That sound from the Pak-trackers feature is supposed to lead firefighters to one of their own who may be in trouble. The devices also feature a remote that informs firefighters how far away they are from the firefighter in need.
Leshko said the gear enhances a department's ability and shortens the time taken to locate a firefighter who has been injured.
"You still need to work, but you get to them a lot quicker," Freeland Fire Chief Joe Stepansky said.
Firefighters checked their gear one last time and Mandak gave the go-ahead, escorting the first training group to the smoke-filled ground floor in the simulated fire scene.
Trackers on three fake victims, two live and one mannequin, started chirping, as the sound of the firefighters' boots hitting the steel steps pounded down a staircase.
The sound of their air tanks made a repeated "whoosh" noise as the chirping continued.
Blinded by smoke, the firefighters began to feel their way around the building, trying to locate the source of the chirping. "Is everybody OK?" a firefighter yelled out to those in the training.
The group found the first victim, then a second and a third, until the chirping stopped.
Stepansky said the new equipment makes it much easier to find a firefighter in trouble. McAdoo Assistant Chief Robert Leshko said through training, younger members get a feel for fire fighting in a controlled environment, though, it may be a few years until they get into an actual fire scene.
Mandak noted the training is a major benefit to the three departments and the community, and he thanked Holy Trinity Slovak Church for loaning out its space, noting not too many people/organizations are willing to do that.
The system compliments thermal imaging cameras, which many departments have too, Leshko said.
September 28, 2009