On a hot Monday night in late July, a dozen Platteville firefighters put on their turnout gear and air masks and walked into a fire.
The fire was inside the new fire burn building at the Public Safety Complex at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore.
The five-story brick building includes two rooms — a first-floor kitchen and a second-floor bedroom — that firefighters might encounter in a house fire.
The experience combines sensory overload and deprivation. The rooms are lit only by flames — provided by an LP gas tank outside the building — and the firefighters’ lights. The light is further filtered by smoke. Nothing filters the heat from the flames, however.
The only sound comes from the roar of the flames and the hiss of your air mask providing air. Talking is difficult because of the muffling effects of the mask.
“They get to see the fire, follow procedures and how to do things the right way without a chance of the building burning down around them or something going horrifically wrong,” said Karl Sandry, the lead fire instructor at Southwest Tech and a Platteville firefighter.
Platteville firefighters — those whose work schedules permit, that is — train at the facility on the fifth Monday of the month for “people that haven’t experienced that,” said Fire Chief Dave Izzard. “Some of their work schedules interfere with a chance to get some real good training. That’s just the way it is.”
Twenty-four of the fire department’s 52 firefighters have gone through training at SWTC.
While engineers — those who drive and operate fire engines — usually train back in Platteville, one engineer goes to SWTC to operate the engine. “It’s great experience for them too to handle the trucks,” said Izzard.
“It’s so controlled, yet it’s really life-like, really realistic,” said firefighter Larry Pink.
The SWTC facility is safer than how fire departments have traditionally trained to fight fires — burning down houses.
“Before we had this structure, we acquired houses that people had wanted to get rid of, and used them for training,” said Sandry. “We’d use each room until they couldn’t be used anymore for training. While it is more realistic, it is more dangerous.
“There’s no 100 percent guarantee, but we’ve got 99 percent with our facility.”
“The good thing is we don’t get a lot of house burns to get experience,” said Izzard. “The bad thing is you don’t get a lot of experience” — for instance, unexpected obstacles — outside training.
This particular night, the firefighters were training on fighting a fire in a building with a standpipe system, in which firefighters hook up to water pipes inside the building instead of having to hook up directly to their fire trucks. Standpipe systems are found in newer and taller buildings in Platteville, such as Jenor Towers or newer UW–Platteville dormitories or classroom buildings.
“It would all depend on what the fire department wants,” said Sandry. “For Platteville, we decided when we set up the dates we would do certain things. It’s customized for what the department wants.”
Most fire departments hold monthly training sessions at their fire station, but the SWTC facility is becoming a more popular place for fire department training. Sandry said a “few hundred” firefighters have gone through the facility independent of SWTC fire safety classes.
“In most cases because they have been training every month most fire department members are getting their training through the fire department on a regular basis, and when they want more formal training they’d come to us,” said Sandry.
The SWTC complex also has a tower for rope training. The Southwest Wisconsin Regional Technical Rescue Team also trains at the complex.