Portable Firefighter Survival Maze

BY THOMAS HANCOCK

Throughout the fire service, training divisions are always looking for new and exciting ways to deliver quality training to their firefighters. With all our day-to-day activities (e.g., emergency responses, apparatus maintenance issues, staffing problems) and the cost of fuel, it’s not always practical to rotate crews through the training division to receive this training. Here’s a relatively economical way to take training to the firefighters. Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services designed a portable maze that provides quality firefighter training right in the apparatus bay. Many departments have constructed similar mazes at their stations or on their training grounds, but most of them are permanent fixtures. Although we used many of their ideas to construct our maze, we found a way to make ours portable (photo 1).


(1) Photos by Chuck Baird.

Using a pickup truck and a 12- × 6-foot enclosed trailer, our training division delivers the maze to a central station in one of our battalions, where it can be set up in less than 30 minutes. After we set it up, we give a few battalion officers a class on how to use the maze, and they are ready to go. Our battalion chiefs and captains handle all the scheduling for their battalions and coordinate their own training. There are roughly 150 people per battalion. Once everyone in the battalion has completed the training, usually in three to four weeks, we pack it up and deliver it to the next battalion.

THROUGH THE MAZE

The maze is designed to train users in the basics of firefighter survival. Each firefighter crawls through the maze alone, with a blacked-out face piece, a full air cylinder, and with his gear arranged exactly as it would be for a fire. Trainees can’t remove any items from their pockets that they usually carry during a response to make the maze easier for them.

We also encourage the firefighters to protect their equipment as much as possible. Some tight areas in the maze make it easy to damage equipment when squeezing through the obstacles if you’re not careful. Before beginning, an instructor outlines a scenario for the firefighter that includes the member’s becoming separated from his crew during a structural collapse with conditions worsening at his current location. The firefighter calls a Mayday and enters the maze.

In sections 1 and 2, the firefighter encounters plywood obstacles that require bending, twisting, and squeezing his body to get through the reduced profiles (photo 2). In section 3, the firefighter must manipulate his body through an eight-foot section of rope entanglements and may go over, under, or through the ropes (photo 3). This section teaches the importance of protecting your air bottle and carrying some type of wire cutter in your gear.


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Section 4 is the roof/ceiling collapse simulator. As soon as the firefighter enters this section, the roof/ceiling, weighted with a section of three-inch hose, collapses on top of him. As the firefighter crawls forward, part of the ceiling is down, blocking his path (photo 4). The firefighter pushes through this obstacle and enters section 5, the hose evolution, which reinforces the importance of staying in contact with your hoseline. It features three sections of colored hose that are stuffed with rags to simulate the feel of a charged hoseline. Once the firefighter enters this section of the maze, he must pick a hose; whichever one he picks, he should follow it until he finds the other end. The hose is wrapped around other hose sections as well as over and through a small panel that requires the firefighter to reach over and around the panel to stay on his hoseline (photo 5).


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The hose evolution takes the firefighter into section 6, which contains more plywood obstacles, including a 14-inch low-profile obstacle (photo 6). We stress the importance of keeping your SCBA on for as long as possible and only removing it as a last resort. With some practice, even the largest members of our department are able to go through these obstacles without removing their SCBA.


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In Section 7, plastic construction mesh laid on the floor is used to entangle the firefighter. When the firefighter crawls onto it, the instructors wrap it all around the trainee, snagging it on the helmet, the SCBA, around the hands and feet, and on anything that may be hanging off the participant’s gear, such as flashlights or other tools (photo 7). The firefighter must disentangle himself before proceeding.


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The trainee then enters section 8, part of an L-shaped box. As soon as he enters, a sliding door closes behind him, blocking the way he came in. Once the firefighter crawls into the L-shaped box, he comes to a dead end. An instructor tells the firefighter that he needs to keep looking to find a way out. If the firefighter searches above himself, he will discover a small scuttle hole back near the entrance of the section to climb through (photo 8).


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Before climbing onto the top of sections 8 and 9, the firefighter is instructed to sound the floor using his fist. Section 8 has a solid floor, so when the trainee sounds the floor, it sounds safe to crawl on. However, as the firefighter turns the corner to crawl across section 9, he reaches a point where the floor gets spongy. We explain why the floor might be spongy and the importance of getting off it as quickly as possible.

As the firefighter crawls forward, he finds a small flight of stairs. We discuss with the firefighter the proper way to go down the stairs as well as the importance of sounding the steps with his feet as he goes down. After going down the stairs, the trainee crawls a few feet and enters the final section.

Section 10 is possibly the toughest. It requires the firefighter to serpentine through head first, over and under several obstacles (photo 9). By the time the firefighter completes the last section of the maze, even the most physically fit firefighter is ready for rehab.


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Throughout the maze, we strategically place several short sections of hose with couplings in the firefighter’s path. When the member finds one, he must read the coupling and indicate in which direction he would follow the hose to get out of the maze. “Smooth, bump, bump—takes me to the pump.” We encourage the firefighter to communicate any valuable information he has to command: any change in conditions, when the firefighter changes floors, or when he locates a hoseline.

We also constantly ask the firefighter how much air he has and encourage him to practice good air conservation techniques. Whether the firefighter is hard at work trying to extricate himself or is waiting for the RIT to locate him, air conservation is important. We encourage the firefighter to stay as low as possible throughout the maze. With the exception of a couple of obstacles, anytime the firefighter raises himself above the four-foot plywood walls, we tap him on the head and tell him he is getting hot and he needs to get back down.

Not every firefighter who starts the maze finishes it. Many firefighters tap out on their first attempt because of the physical exertion required to complete it. The obstacles in this maze require firefighters to work in awkward positions they probably are not used to working in, and this tends to mess with their heads. There are several times in the maze when the firefighter contemplates quitting. This is normal, but he should be able to work through it and continue. Sometimes we just need to remind the member to slow his breathing down, think about the obstacle at hand, and work through it. We have access to the firefighters throughout the maze and we can move a section of the maze to access them at any point.

Designing our maze to be portable was difficult. We knew what we wanted from using everyone else’s ideas; we just didn’t know how to make it portable. Fortunately, like every other fire department in the country, we have plenty of firefighters who work in construction on their days off. I turned to a couple of them for assistance. We needed a design that would be easy to put together and break down without taking all day to do it, but it also needed to be tough enough to withstand the abuse of firefighters. So far, it has done that. We have run more than a thousand firefighters through it and have replaced only a few 2 × 4s and a couple of sheets of plywood.

CONSTRUCTION

The basic design uses 4- × 8-foot sheets of plywood for the side panels, secured with three top and two bottom braces. Each brace has notches that fit into corresponding notches in the plywood (photo 10). Three top braces secure the top of the plywood, one on each end and one in the middle. Two bottom braces lie flat on the floor about 30 inches from each end of a section to keep the bottom from kicking out (photos 11, 12).


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The brace and plywood notches should not fit together too tightly so that the maze is easy to put together and break down; the structure also needs some give to absorb the shock of firefighters banging into the walls. If using ½-inch plywood, the bottom brace notches should be about ¾ inch wide, and the top brace notches should be 1¼ inches wide. The top brace notches are cut wider to tie in the next section of side panels.

Most of the top braces also have plywood panels attached to provide obstacles for the firefighters to crawl through and also to strengthen the maze (photo 13). These panels can be designed for the firefighters to crawl around, through, under, or over.


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When connecting two sections of the maze, a small piece of plywood, approximately 1 × 4 feet, is attached vertically to one end of the 4- × 8-foot side panels (photo 14). This has a notch cut out of it for a top brace to connect the two sections. The length of the top and bottom braces determines the maze’s width. Our maze is 36 inches wide.


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Two 2- × 2-inch strips with a ¾-inch space between them hold the panels in place as the firefighter pushes through the obstacles (photo 15). The panels are designed to be interchangeable so the maze can be reconfigured after crews have been through it to provide a new maze. We drilled holes in almost all the corridors so the rope entanglements can be created in any section as well. The reconfiguration possibilities are endless.


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Since sections 8 and 9 have to be strong enough to hold a firefighter’s weight, they can’t be disassembled and are built as solid pieces. These two sections are simply butted up to one another. They are unobstructed on the inside to allow plenty of room for firefighters to crawl through.

Section 8 simulates a solid floor with the scuttle hatch in it, and Section 9 has the spongy floor. We first constructed section 9 with a solid floor similar to that of section 8 but put it 1¾ inches lower than the floor in Section 8. To simulate the spongy floor (section 9), we spaced out a few 2 × 4s on the solid floor and, using ¼-inch plywood, we covered the 2 × 4s. Sections 8 and 9 appear to be the same height, but when a firefighter crawls out from the scuttle, the floors are not of the same consistency; the floor in section 9 feels like it is going to fall through.

At the end of the spongy floor is a small set of stairs (photo 16), which can be built to mount on the end of the floor simulator and hinge up (as ours does), or it can be built as a separate unit that can be moved away.


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Section 10, the serpentine section at the end of the maze, takes a lot of abuse. The three low-profile panels in section 10 are 16 inches off the floor; the other two obstacles start on the floor and extend up 20 inches. It should be constructed with the same design as the other portable sections of the maze, except it must be built with ¾-inch plywood so it can withstand the added abuse it will endure.

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As firefighters, we all face the same challenges. Taking training to the firefighters that they enjoy and also will benefit from can be a challenge in itself. This maze accomplished both for our department. This article doesn’t give an exact blueprint of our maze, but maybe you can get enough ideas from it to help your department meet some of its training needs.

Author’s note: Thanks to Engineer Steve Bradley, Firefighter Tony Ruppert, and Firefighter David Callaway for their assistance in constructing this maze; the Clayton County (GA) Fire Department; the Georgia Fire Academy; the unknown creator of the Entrapenator Maze; and all the other fire departments whose ideas were used in this maze.

THOMAS HANCOCK is a 12-year veteran and lieutenant with Cobb County (GA) Fire and Emergency Services, assigned to Engine Co. 30. He has served as a department training officer and is a volunteer firefighter with the Gordon County (GA) Fire Department. He has an associate degree in fire science from Coosa Valley Technical College, where he is an adjunct instructor for the program.

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