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Howard fire department brings back training in burning buildings

The Howard County fire department has reinstituted a training program that sends firefighters into burning structures as realistic preparation for emergencies — bringing back a practice that it had stopped amid a spate of injuries nationwide and the 2007 death of a Baltimore fire recruit.

Officials in Howard and around Maryland regard such training as valuable because the conditions are most like those that firefighters will face at the scene of a fire. The training, also used by Baltimore and Montgomery counties, usually is held at houses that are slated for demolition.

But John Jerome, assistant chief of the Bureau of Education and Training for the Howard fire department, said the county stopped the practice in 2004 after reports of injuries around the country. That concern increased after the 2007 death of recruit Racheal M. Wilson in Baltimore.

"Everybody really took pause with that," he said of Wilson's death. "Basically your worst nightmare, to think something like that happened on a training exercise."

In attempting to learn from the accident in Baltimore, the Howard department adopted stricter safety guidelines based on standards set by the National Fire Protection Association, including requiring more experienced personnel on site.

On Saturday, the county will hold its second live-burn training exercise in a month — this time at a vacant Ellicott City house.

Although Howard officials temporarily banned the exercises, Baltimore County did not, said Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman Elise Armacost. Baltimore County firefighters had one last spring at a building off Shawan Road.

Baltimore used the practice until more than four years ago, when Wilson died in a burning rowhouse on South Calverton Road. A report on the incident said the city's Fire Department violated 50 national safety standards, which contributed to her death. The report cited failing equipment and a lack of oversight.

Jerome acknowledged that training in vacant buildings requires a lot of personnel — there will be 12 supervisors to 25 trainees on Saturday — and not every department can make that commitment. He said Howard County is "blessed" to be able to commit the resources it takes to safely execute a burn at an acquired structure.

"It's just a balance between 'Do you not ever expose your people to this risk when their job is this risk?'" he said. "At least with this, we can control the experience."

Baltimore Fire Department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said the city has no plans to reinstitute live burns. "That has been disbanded since the accident with the recruit," he said.

The department "thought it was beneficial at the time," he said, but "we no longer felt it was appropriate." Instead, city officials have opted for a "controlled safe environment," bringing trainees to a facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground, where instructors from the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute conduct exercises in a cement structure.

Stephan G. Fugate, president of the city fire officers union, said training in such buildings is not as effective as exercises in vacant structures.

Referring to a city training facility on Pulaski Highway that is no longer used, he said, "We learned it like the back of our hand — that's not real. You could take a block of vacant structures in Baltimore, and they are all different."

Fugate said he has confidence that Howard County's department can safely carry out the exercises and would like to see the city look at the possibility of training firefighters in vacant rowhouses again.

"I would like to think that at some point in the future that another chief will revisit the issue," he said. "You're going into the unknown. It's a terrifying atmosphere. The best way to acclimate recruits is to put them in a real-life scenario."

Howard County firefighters had trained at the James N. Robey Police & Fire Training Facility in Marriottsville and at other nearby facilities. But Jerome said fire and smoke conditions in a concrete building are not the same as those faced by firefighters on the job.

Before Howard firefighters send trainees into a burning building, the department spends several days preparing the site — removing windows, for instance, and replacing them with easier-to-remove wooden shutters.

Jerome said it takes 30 to 40 hours of prep time to "convert it to a building that is relatively safe."

On the training day, firefighters must go through equipment checks and safety briefings. They will also get a chance to walk through the building to become familiar with it. Trainees will be paired with a state-certified fire service instructor, and paramedics will be on the scene.

Among the major safety violations cited in the report on Wilson's death was the lack of qualified personnel, as well as the fact that fires were set on several levels of the rowhouse. National guidelines say only one fire should be ignited during training. Most fires have only one point of origin unless it's an arson, Fugate said.

At Saturday's training, Howard firefighters will perform exercises until safety personnel decide the building is unsafe. Once the fire is determined to be too large, he said, the group will move from "training mode," to a stabilization mode, to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings.

Fugate, of the city fire union, hopes Howard County's practices will help demonstrate that training can work in vacant structures.

"We learned a tragic lesson [when Wilson died]. It's unfortunate that a tragedy would preclude the best training for recruits," Fugate said, but he added, "under proper supervision, we can certainly do the same thing."

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