BY JACK M. SMITH
One of the most difficult tasks in the fire ser- vice is to provide personnel with realistic training to prepare them for field operations. Certainly, providing live-fire training is an important component. For combination and volunteer organizations, especially those in rural areas, the ability to provide live-fire training can be an extremely complex problem.
In 2000, the North Slope Borough, a rural municipal government located in Arctic Alaska, looked at the feasibility of constructing a permanent facility to provide members from the eight departments in the region with live-fire training. Over the years, the department struggled to provide live-fire training, burning everything from damaged homes to small shacks. As acquirable structures became nearly nonexistent, an alternative was essential to meet basic needs. Sending personnel to another facility in the state would cost more than $1,000 per person and was not feasible.
An architectural and engineering firm identified costs for constructing a permanent facility at nearly $5 million. Construction of any structure in Arctic Alaska is expensive. The freeze and thaw of tundra require pilings be drilled eight to 12 feet deep to provide a stable foundation in the permafrost. Alternatives are at least as costly. This results in site development adding 25 to 40 percent to already high construction costs.
In addition to financial barriers, land in the North Slope, like much of Alaska, is difficult to obtain. The majority landholder in Alaska is the federal government, including many of the desirable sites in and around Barrow. Some locations were large enough to accommodate a structure, but each posed operational problems. Positions near residential areas likely would generate complaints from real or simulated smoke, runoff, powder from chemical extinguishers, and other factors. There was also concern about the capability to operate and maintain a large facility with the limited staffing and resources dedicated to training.
THE MOBILE TRAINING UNIT
Enter the Mobile Training Unit (MTU), a 53-foot structure constructed on a tractor-trailer frame. Working with a vendor, several department staff members researched costs to develop a proposal with the hopes of raising donations to make the project a reality. This was cut short on notification that our FIRE Act grant application had been successful.
Members erecting the second story of the MTU and preparing initial setup. Once the initial setup is complete, many components can remain in place.(photos courtesy of the North Slope Borough (AK) Fire Department)
Received in September 2005, the MTU began immediate service with an Alaska Firefighter I course. The unit contains a permanent propane-fired bed prop and rollover simulator. Portable propane-fired pans can be relocated in the unit and covered with other simulated props to provide a variety of live-fire exercises. The unit’s onboard generator makes it totally self-contained and portable, though an optional shore power connection is available.
The MTU control panel provides the operator with information about temperatures, burn prop status, and other unit information. The window allow for viewing of attack operations.
Movable interior wall panels enable instructors to change the layout of the unit to present participants with different scenarios. Several panels have mock doors or other moveable components. The integrated smoke generator creates a dark smoke that forces members to crawl and search in realistic type conditions. The collapsible second story provides the means for performing other essential skills like laddering, vertical ventilation, and multistory fire attack. A few individuals can easily erect the second story in approximately 30 minutes.
Instructors preparing for another day of training use a standardized routine to ensure safe operation. In Arctic Alaska, this includes spreading gravel over the icy surfaces created the day before.
The MTU contains numerous safety features to minimize participant risk. For propane fires to function, the operator must step on a control pedal while another instructor engages the Safety Officer Pendant. Release of either immediately shuts the unit down. Temperature and propane sensors force operations to occur within safe limits. Should either exceed the allowable range, the unit automatically shuts down, sounds an alarm, and activates ventilation fans.
An attack team entering the unit encounters heavy fire and smoke conditions.
Although some expressed concern about the reality of propane props, for a department that lacked a reliable method for conducting live-fire training, these props have been a huge success. Most importantly, it allows instructors to expose new members to live-fire and simulated smoke in extremely controlled conditions. The ability to conduct an unlimited number of drills is important. Fires in acquired structures are usually one-time events, requiring instructors to do everything possible to maximize the opportunity. The MTU allows members to repeatedly perform attacks to enhance proficiency and technique.
The mobility of the trailer enables it to be positioned on a variety of sites. Here, it is on an old softball field.
Even many veteran firefighters have been through drills numerous times and are impressed with the realistic conditions, especially the rollover simulator. Although it is easy to describe a rollover or watch a video, experiencing it from the “tip of the knob” provides an effective learning event.
The department continues work to secure a long-term home for the MTU, but for less than $400,000, it has proven to be a cost-effective alternative. Thanks to the support of the City of Barrow, the department has been able to keep the unit on an old softball field until a more permanent site is obtained.
The expected useful life of the facility is 15 to 20 years with proper maintenance. For departments unable to secure funds to construct a permanent structure or lacking the resources to operate and maintain one, an MTU may be a viable option. Departments near road or highway access might consider collaborating with neighboring departments to acquire a unit. Alaska Fire Marshal Gary Powell expressed interest in investigating this as one solution to meet training needs for many of the state’s small volunteer departments.
If you are considering the purchase of an MTU, investigate all the options and alternatives to ensure it meets your department’s needs. Several vendors produce excellent units, some more specialized than others. Our department chose one with features to meet basic training needs and with moveable walls. A staged video clip of the North Slope Borough Fire Department’s MTU is available at www.north-slope.org/nsb/mobilefireunit.htm.
JACK M. SMITH is chief of the North Slope Borough (AK) Fire Department and has more than 20 years of experience in emergency services. He has a degree in municipal fire protection, serves on the Ilisagvik College board of trustees, and is fire and EMS program coordinator. He has been an FDIC instructor and is a certified fire and emergency medical instructor.