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Training to fight fires, save lives


A three-man crew of firefighters stood atop an old Columbia warehouse, practicing how to cut a hole in the roof that - in a real fire situation - would let smoke and flames escape and perhaps save a firefighter's life.

"See, by doing a little bit of damage up here, you're preventing a larger damage," said instructor Jake Rixner, as one of the men got on his knees and tore through the roof with a circular saw. "As soon as we open up the roof, the situation is better because it helps the crew beneath us."

The rooftop drill - conducted by firefighters in about 60 pounds of fire gear each at a building slated for demolition next month - was part of a two-day training exercise aimed mostly at practicing how to help firefighters in distress.

Forty to 50 firefighters from Howard, Harford and Prince George's counties took part in the drills Saturday and Sunday, working on the roof, crawling through a small maze, smashing through 12-inch concrete walls and rescuing a firefighter trapped in an office.

Rixner, a firefighter with the Kentland Volunteer Fire Company in Landover, wore a T-shirt with a round stamp over the heart that read "In Memory of Lt. Pete Lund," a New York firefighter who died in June last year while fighting a house fire on Long Island.

"Pete, he loved these kind of trainings," Rixner said.

The exercises were organized by Central Maryland FOOLS, a chapter of the international firefighter organization Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society.

"Unfortunately, a lot of these drills come out of the deaths of firefighters," said Tim Aungst, a Howard firefighter. One of the techniques practiced last weekend was the "Denver Drill," which was developed after the 1992 death of a Denver firefighter who was trapped in a fire after falling in a confined area with a high windowsill.

Eighty-seven firefighters died last year in emergency-related situations, according to an independent study by the National Fire Protection Association. According to a 2004 study commissioned by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, between $2.8 billion and $7.8 billion is spent each year treating firefighter injuries and trying to prevent them.

"It doesn't matter how much equipment we buy and how much money we put in it, but we can't get that figure down of how many firefighters die per year," said Jay Blake, president of Central Maryland FOOLS.

One of the drills involved a Rapid Intervention Team - firefighters who enter a scene in search of a firefighter in trouble.

Later in the afternoon, the three firefighters who sliced a hole in the roof under Rixner's supervision joined three others for a simulated rescue in an office of the former Allied Moving and Storage Warehouse on Berger Road. Three of them strapped on oxygen tanks and, hauling a red stretcher, entered an office filled with machine-made smoke. A firefighter mannequin weighing about 200 pounds had been placed in one of the rooms for rescue.

Lt. Dave Angelo, a Baltimore County firefighter, stood outside the office as the three emerged 12 minutes later with the mannequin.

Angelo has experience with such situations: In November 2003, he was trapped under 7 feet of rubble for an hour and half after a duplex collapsed on him during a call in Essex. Between tears and pauses for breath after being rescued, Angelo told a WBAL-TV reporter in 2003, "I knew my brothers and sisters were coming to get me."

On Sunday, Angelo said he is glad that firefighters receive such training.

"It's important to practice stuff like this," he said.

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