Abandoned buildings just south of downtown Oklahoma City will be filled with smoke and punched full of holes this spring before they are demolished and replaced by a park.
Firefighters are using the buildings between Robinson and Harvey avenues on SW 5 and SW 6 to practice real-time firefighting tactics, including search-and-rescue operations. About 850 firefighters will be trained in the buildings through June, from the newest in the department to those on the cusp of retirement.
Maj. Shane Williams, 20-year veteran of the fire department, said firefighting strategies have evolved continually during his career, with new techniques and technologies regularly replacing the old ones. Hands-on training is the best way to prepare firefighters to use them properly on the job, he said.
“The day you come into the fire station and you think you know everything, you need to retire,” Williams said.
In one exercise, smudge pots are lighted and topped with wet hay, filling the building with dense smoke. A team of firefighters heads inside to pull out a 180-pound mannequin dressed in bunker gear, Williams said.
This group of firefighters — known as a rapid intervention team — is designated at the scene of every residential and commercial fire in Oklahoma City. The team members' only purpose is to make sure their fellow firefighters don't become lost or trapped while extinguishing the blaze.
In a worst-case scenario, they will tie off a rope and march into the burning building, with two firefighters — known as “rabbits” — leading the way and feeling around quickly for bodies, Williams said.
The same approach with a rope is used to scour large buildings with few interior walls.
Firefighters also are practicing the use of thermal imaging cameras to seek human-shaped sources of heat inside a building. Mirrors and windows reflect heat signatures back at firefighters, Williams said, and this training allows them to see firsthand what a false positive looks like in the field.
None of the buildings are burned during the training.
Firefighters also are practicing how to cut holes for heat and smoke to escape from the roof and walls of a building without endangering themselves or other firefighters, Williams said.
Practicing teamwork and keeping your cool under pressure is at the heart of the training, whether the firefighter is a chief or a rookie, Williams said.
“Even if the world is on fire, I'm going to stay calm so that everyone else stays calm,” he said.
“If you don't work together, it's not going to go out, or someone is going to get hurt,” Williams said. “You're part of the team, and I expect you to be part of the team.”
Brandon Rudek, 26, has been an Oklahoma City firefighter for about a year and a half. He's been involved in about 20 heavy fire calls since joining the department.
Live training also was part of what Rudek calls “rookie school.”
“Even if you take my sight, I know the layout of the building,” he said.
“I've never been here, never even driven by it. You go inside and have no idea what it's going to look like,” Rudek said.
“You have terrible dexterity when you have those gloves on ... If you don't practice it, there's no way to be ready to go whenever you actually need to use it,” he said.
Williams said the goal is to minimize the damage that has occurred and put the fire out.
“We're not scared to basically look the devil in the face,” Williams said.
The day you come into the fire station and you think you know everything, you need to retire.”
Maj. Shane Williams,
20-year veteran of the Oklahoma City fire department