Panic Room: Army Firefighters Train at California Center

Story and photos by Sgt. Shawn W. Napier

There is no light

Sirens fill the air, a constant reminder that oxygen is limited and every space is too small. All paths feel like a dead end.

“This is the real deal. Its 90 degrees out here and you’re inside of a blistering hot, metal container. It gets real hot. It’s pretty extreme,” said Spc. Adam R. Prentice, a firefighter with the 482nd Firefighter Engineer Detachment, out of Fort Riley, Kansas.

Firefighters are here to get a realistic feel for the obstacles they may face someday. Under the guidance of the Fort Hunter Liggett (CA) Fire Department, these soldiers will climb into the self contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) course to practice the skills of their trade.

“We go in with all our gear and work our way through like a maze,” said Prentice. “Your sweating, your heart’s racing and you can barely breathe. When you get stuck, you just breathe and try to wiggle your way through and do the best you can do without panicking.”

But there is a trick–the firefighters must negotiate the course blindfolded to simulate heavy smoke conditions.

“They will have to crawl through spaces that are about as slim as they are,” said Mike Hewston, Captain of the Fort Hunter Liggett (CA) Fire Department. “We enjoy being out here to give the firefighters a taste of our SCBA box here. The military comes at least once every year and this is our biggest year with them.”

Firefighter units from across the country have run through the SCBA course, Hewston continued.

“We’ve actually had about six groups go through this year. Each ranged anywhere from 15 to 30 firefighters at a time and two more groups are coming through in June,” said Hewston.

With all the Soldiers fully geared, the firefighters of Fort Hunter Liggett begin blindfolding participants while checking their equipment.

“You have to have a good left-hand search pattern,” explained Spc. Deidra Miller, a firefighter with the 482nd Firefighter Engineer Detachment when asked about being blindfolded. “You have to rely on every other sense that you have and you definitely have to rely on your buddy.”

“Basically what this is, is we have a two story structure with sometimes three tiers within it,” said Hewston. “What it does is helps the firefighter become familiar with not only their equipment but their SCBA and how to use it in emergency situations where they get stuck.”

One by one, pairs of soldiers begin descending into a makeshift construction designed to simulate a collapsed building. Inside, instructors watch as the soldiers guide themselves through a maze of loose wires, tight spaces and various obstacles.

“It’s not really the space that bugged me,” said Miller. “It was just really hot in there. I had lots of fun and I enjoyed the challenge.”

“It’s awesome training,” said Hewston. “I’ve been through it myself and it’s incredible. It’s realistic in the fact that it teaches you how to use your equipment and it teaches you not to panic, how to stay calm and stay focused.”

“We’re extremely grateful for the Fort Hunter Liggett (CA) Fire Department,” said Staff Sgt. William Vanaxen, a firefighter with the 237th Firefighter Engineer Detachment. “They take a lot of time out of their day. They have been gracious with the use of their men and facilities to facilitate outstanding training.”

Several minutes have passed since the firefighters entered. Muffled yells pass from partner to partner as they attempt to help one another navigate the SCBA.

Finally, the first pair crawls through the inverted tube that is the exit. Both of them stumble out; exhausted and disoriented.

“It’s high speed training,” said Prentice with a smile.

He has just learned something that may help him save a life someday, and his own.


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