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Volunteer firefighters sharpen their skills

As a cloud of dark smoke poured out of the windows of the four-story building, an exhausted Adam Skrodzki, his reddened face matching the color of his hair, paused for a breather.

The humid summer weather outside was a relief compared to the 600 degrees it felt like inside the burning building, where he helped haul a 100-pound water hose up and down three flights of stairs while wearing about 80 pounds of fire gear.

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"This is just a simulation," said fellow Howard County volunteer firefighter Craig Roston, 45. "The real thing is worse."

Skrodzki and Roston were part of a class of nearly 30 volunteer firefighters learning advanced techniques at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. For more than 70 years, the fire and rescue institute has provided training to protect the citizens of Maryland by enhancing the ability of the emergency service providers.

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"We feel we are one of the top fire and rescue institutes in the country and I believe in the world," said Darl "Mickey" McBride, manager of the special programs section. "We set the bar very high."

Although each state has its own fire and rescue training institute, MFRI is one of the few institutions that is part of a university. It is also a not-for-profit organization, offering this Fire Fighter II class free for volunteer firefighters. Last year, the institute trained more than 27,000 students.

"All of our programs are educationally sound, with quality, and safe," said McBride.

When volunteer firefighter Brian Parsons, 20, of Washington felt chest pains after the live fire exercise, an emergency medical technician was there to check his heartbeat, pulse and breathing rate to make sure he wasn't suffering from heat exhaustion.

"It's very common, especially at this time of year," said Steven Augustine, the instructor of the class.

The emergency worker put an ice pack around Parsons' neck and poured cold water over his head to cool him off. When asked if he wanted to go to a hospital, Parsons declined. "I'm feeling a lot better," he said a little while later.

As part of the weeklong Fire Fighter II class, the volunteers applied what they learned in the classroom by participating in mandatory fire evolutions, or fire scenarios, that were evaluated by the instructor. The class provides instruction in fire behavior, building construction, water distribution systems, fixed fire protection systems, ventilation, hose streams, fire prevention and rescue techniques.

The drills on this day were a lot harder than any previous day's because students were in the burn building longer. The day before, students practiced the "Texas two-step" outside.

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In groups of five, the volunteers held water hoses and took a step in unison before spraying water to put out the fire produced by a portable flammable liquid simulator.

After taking an hourlong lunch break, the volunteers went to the burn building and went through a one-floor basement fire simulator. The students put out the fire in less than a minute and afterward sat around on nearby metal bleachers, discussing more exciting fires.

"As soon as Anne Arundel County saw the smoke in the Shopper's Food Warehouse fire, they just went ahead and called another alarm," said Sean Felder, 32, excited about the smoke created in an arson in which someone set fire to a bag of potato chips in March.

The students in the class range from their late teens to about 50. Some, such as Felder, want to become career firefighters. Others, such as John Bishop, 39, use firefighting as a way to spend their free time. Pankaj Agarwalla, a Prince George's County volunteer, also uses firefighting as a hobby. A senior at Harvard, he aspires to be a doctor.

"I can be here all day doing this," said Agarwalla about firefighting.

Being in the building was the hardest for the instructors, who had to stay in longer to supervise each training group.

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"It's hard on us physically," said Augustine, 52, the Fire Fighter II class instructor. When there is an evolution, he stands in the room with the fire and ducks around a corner when he sees the firefighters coming. "Occasionally, students get too excited and I'm knocked down by a water stream," he said.

The next day, he planned to administer a final written exam. About 98 percent of volunteers usually pass.

On this second-to-last day of class, the students were too worn out after the evolution that covered four floors to discuss other fires they were involved in. Instead, they drank water and sprawled on the balcony of the burn building to recuperate.

"It was more challenging today," said Skrodzki, a UM student who plans to be a physical therapist.

A three-year volunteer firefighter for the 5th District Fire Station in Clarksville, Skrodzki was the 2001 Rookie of the Year of the station and the 2002 Fire Fighter of the Year. He joined the station at 16, the minimum age to volunteer, because he loved shows such Rescue 911 and Real TV as a kid.

"It's an adrenaline rush," said Skrodzki, who says he has never been injured as a firefighter.

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Skrodzki has taken firefighting classes whenever he has had a break. He took the Fire Fighter I class in spring 2000, an EMT class in spring 2001 and a Rescue Tech class in spring last year. This latest course, he said, provided him with a deeper understanding of theories and concepts about firefighting.

"Fire Fighter I gave me more of the basics," he said. "But this class put me more in a thinking state."

To take this Fire Fighter II class, he had to take a week off from his summer job at Zepp Plumbing and Heating.

"It's my summer vacation," Skrodzki said. "It's fun, but a lot of work."


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