Trial by fire: A visit to the smokehouse

Reporter continues training with KFD

Reporter Aaron Ricca attaches a large diameter hose for water supply from hydrant to truck to attack line hose. (MAC NELSON/KFD)

Reporter Aaron Ricca attaches a large diameter hose for water supply from hydrant to truck to attack line hose. (MAC NELSON/KFD)

Note: In Sunday's edition, Miner reporter Aaron Ricca detailed the steps taken by the Kingman Fire Department when gearing up and compared it to the load he carried as a soldier in Afghanistan.

Today, it's into "The Smokehouse."

KINGMAN - The KFD technical term is Live Burn Structure, but The Smokehouse is more accurate if not more eye-catching.

To simulate entering a burning structure, our team of firefighters would be on hands and knees, crawling on the searing concrete. Our hose team, carrying a hose through the multi-room building, switched positions to take the lead with rod in hand to feel for any victims or obstructions that might lie ahead.

The room itself isn't allowed to get hotter than 400 degrees Fahrenheit for safety reasons. Once that's achieved, a safety crew will cool the fire down until the extinguishment crew arrives.

"Anything hotter than that, we have a backup line," Angermuller said. "That's to make sure we don't get anyone hurt during training."

Firemen outside would give the flames a quick spurt of water through a window. The water would spew a cloud of steam into the air. We could stand up and immediately feel the intense variation of temperatures between the floor and eye level.

The water spurt is also used as a firefighting techniques to suppress the fire before it gets out of hand in a structure.

Training officers Rink Gordon and Angermuller brought in a hand-held Thermal Imaging Camera (TIC) to identify heat signatures from bodies or the fire itself. The TIC could be switched between different modes of color and black and white for different imaging needs.

"As long as you're not in a room that's about to flash over, it will be all white," explained Angermuller.

There was so much smoke in the building, it was virtually impossible to see the person only inches in front of me. There was a short temptation to panic but between my resilience and the comfort of knowing there were safety officers ready to take charge, I was immediately back at ease.

Hydration and prevention

I've been harped on hydration and the risk of becoming a heat casualty relentlessly during my 11 years in the Army.

"Once a heat-cat, always a heat-cat," so says the training NCO. Once a person succumbs to the heat, the likelihood of it happening again are greater than for someone who has never fallen out.

My day with the department was no different. Ice chests full of water and Gatorade were abundant and we were encouraged, if not almost forced to drink water every step of the way, even if we already had a bottle in our hand.

Heat injuries are common in this field. Avoiding proper fluids while lumbering around the concrete landscape of the training site and crawling through the smoke and firehouses with 60 pounds of gear would result in a shotgun lesson in how the department applies emergency medical services.

Cancer is a huge concern among firefighters. The carcinogens they're exposed to have resulted in an increased number of cancer diagnoses in fire department retirees nationwide. We were told to scrub the sweat and smoke residue off our faces and necks with baby wipes to remove any carcinogens that would soak through those vulnerable portions of our skin.

After a breath of fresh air and downing a few bottles of water, we suited up again.

Time to cook

I was slated to get back to the office around noon but was persuaded by calls of "C'mon man, you gotta' stick around for this" and "This is the craziest part of the training."

I'm glad I stuck around.

It was time for the flashover simulator or 'The Flash House', where things start to cook - literally.

The flashover simulator is basically a Conex container - the same metal storage containers that have stirred up grief downtown - and is designed to simulate extremely accurately, what a room looks and feels like when everything in the room reaches its ignition point. Everything.

At the front of the container, a pile of wood and debris is ignited. Myself, four firefighters and two safety officers/firefighters decked out in full PPE enter the container, sit on the concrete floor and wait.

Flashover typically occurs between the temperature ranges of 932-1112 degrees Fahrenheit and the overall heat itself reaches up to 2,000 degrees.

The fire burns in a trough on what appears to be a stage but over the course of about 15 minutes, the fire gets hotter and the smoke gets thicker. Within minutes the smoke is right above our heads if not directly in our faces. We can reach up and create a wake of smoke with the stroke of our hands. I can barely see the firefighter three feet in front of me.

When the flashover finally begins, it isn't like the explosions in the movies. The smoke above us ignites and one long, gentle blanket of flame eerily and slowly creeps along the ceiling in a wave of fire illuminating the bulges of smoke that billow between the temperature variances in the room.

We were warned to try our best to avoid letting our skin touch the inside of the turn-out gear. The room and the outer layer of our suits is hot enough that the heat is conducted through the suit and can cause mild burns if we put too much pressure on a certain point. There were no singes of heat for me, but rather the inside of the suit heating up like the middle of a Hot Pocket.

Each of us took turns rotating closer to the fire to feel the difference in heat. The closer we got, the hotter we got and the urge to panic became slightly more intense. I knew I could hold on, but like any other grueling tests I've faced, I was starting to wonder if I'd rather be carried off the field rather than cry uncle and run out.

It was at that moment that the safety officers tapped us on the shoulder and escorted us out to sunlight and fresh air.

The price of safety

Fire Chief Jake Rhoades and city of Kingman Human Resources broke down the significant financial costs of ensuring the department is continuously hot on its heels:

An entry level firefighter starts out at $40,142 annually, not including an employer burden rate that includes pensions, workers' compensation and FICA taxes.

A battalion chief is clocking in at $60,387. The highest salary for a department chief racks in at $88,203, or .003 percent of Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke's $27 million 2016 salary.

The cost of a firetruck itself is $500,000 fully equipped with hoses, ladder hydraulics, SCBA's and medical service equipment. A three-person crew with beginning salaries between $40,000 for firefighter, $44,000 for the engineer and $51,000 for the captain, runs $636,000.

He said the department is dispatched to roughly 9,600 calls a year (26.3 a day theoretically). Station 2, basically the middle of Kingman, is the busiest with 42 percent of calls. Station 3 on Gordon Ave. is second 34 percent and they also render mutual and automatic (certain call types are automatically rendered) aid with Northern Arizona Consolidated Fire District for calls in the Butler area and farther out.

The salaries of the crew, the cost of the truck, and the cost per call equals roughly $66 per call - a steak dinner for two. At 26 calls a day, $1,742 - or slightly less than the monthly salary of a new Army private.

A structure fire alone runs all four engines from four stations. Separate crews tag team the fire from all angles. A fire attack crew hits the fire with the hoses, while vertical and horizontal ventilation teams clear smoke and heat out of building. Search and rescue crews scour the structure looking for victims and a rapid intervention team or safety crew is on site to ensure all is running safe and smooth. A battalion chief is also on site as incident commander to take charge of the attack and clean up.

"It's a very coordinated attack to say the least," Rhoades said.

The PPE runs a pretty penny itself.

The entire set of turn-out gear - boots, pants, jacket, gloves and helmet - with the SCBA - mask, tank and regulator - easily runs into the $8,000 to $9,000 range.

"This is how most departments are set up," Angermuller said. "Some rural departments charge for services. In some places, you have to pay a yearly fee or the department wouldn't show up to your house. They don't have the tax base we do here."

Those are numbers to take into account when your taxes creep up, your neighbors' house is billowing 10-foot flames out of the windows and you're hoping it doesn't take the rest of the neighborhood down with it.

The overall message

This experience was more than an opportunity to see a fire from the inside-out.

Many city entities are strapped for cash and always gasping for more. Where KFD is concerned, it's about more than asking for additional textbooks, printer cartridges or MRAPs. The fact that the fire department juggles numerous responsibilities that deal directly with life's biggest investments - lives and property - keeping the crews fully equipped will save plenty of physical and financial pain in the long run.

This was just a portion of the hands-on action I was fortunate to explore. Should other city elements decide to grant me a backstage pass for a couple hours, contact my editors. They make the call, not me.

I've spent pages trying to paint a picture of the sweat and labor firefighters endure to guarantee they'll be able to drag you out of a smoke filled bedroom at 3 a.m. or pry you out of a car when you run the embankment and smash into a telephone pole. Chief Angermuller summed it up in a few paragraphs.

"Training is important as it maintains our skill set and makes sure that when we respond to an incident that we are operating in the safest, most efficient manner possible," he said. "The funding aspect is not only critical to training but to day to day operations as well. As a profession, we work to properly educate the public on what their tax dollars are paying for.

"It is an important aspect for the public to see that the fire department provides many more services then just responding to fires. We strive to work on all aspects from prevention, suppression, emergency medical services, and special operations response to be a more efficient organization when looking at all aspects of public safety."

The training proved to me that I can still get into the fight and to suppress the urge to panic under stressful situations.

It also proved that this department wastes no time and spares no expense to ensure that its firefighters are absolutely prepared to respond to emergencies to the best of their abilities and maximum efficiency.

"It's really beneficial for you to come in this situation," Angermuller said. "It's essential for you to convey this to readers what we go through."