February 14, 2013 in Washington Voices

Donation enables fire department recruits to sharpen skills

By The Spokesman-Review
Tyler Tjomsland photoBuy this photo

A firefighter with the Spokane Valley Fire Department hauls a hose Tuesday through the front yard of a house at 9621 E. Empire Ave. that was donated to the department for a training exercise.
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It’s not often that Spokane Valley Fire Department crews intentionally set fire to a house, but they did it Tuesday in Millwood to provide hands-on experience for eight new recruits going through the department’s training academy.

The home at 9621 E. Empire Ave. was donated to the department for training purposes. Crews spent the morning Tuesday repeatedly lighting fires and then putting them out. But they weren’t just practicing knocking down a fire. They were also getting experience at doing searches, moving in tight spaces, controlling hose lines and ladder placement.

The department has been using the home for months while the owner got the necessary permits to burn the house down. “We’ve done over 100 hours of training on this property,” said Battalion Chief Shawn Arold.

On Tuesday the home was destined to meet its fiery end. “We’re going to burn the house down, down to the foundation,” Arold said.

The day was a balance between getting a fire going and not letting it get away before firefighters were done with their training. At one point gases built up in an upstairs bedroom and sent flying a piece of plywood loosely covering a window opening as flames shot out the window. A hose crew ran around the side of the house to spray the room down with water from the outside so another crew could go after the fire on the inside.

Doing training in such old houses is a challenge, Arold said. “It’s got a lot of lathe and plaster inside, big void spaces,” said Arold. “They’re old. They’re dry. They’re ready to burn.”

Shortly after the fire was put out it was started up again, sending flames rolling across the upstairs ceiling for another set of recruits to extinguish.

Ken Witter, 51, calls himself the oldest recruit. He was a KXLY radio DJ before turning to firefighting as a second career. He worked as a volunteer firefighter in Airway Heights and with Whatcom County Fire District 7 before landing the job at Valley Fire. “I was starting to lose hope,” he said of his search to find a full-time firefighting position.

“I’ve always liked to help,” he said. “It just looked like the perfect job.”

Witter said he appreciated being able to train in the house, which is much different from the wide-open rooms in the department’s burn tower. They had to maneuver up and down a low, narrow stairway while wearing full gear and dragging hoses. “We’re bumping our heads,” he said. “I like it because it’s real world and you get to see how things react.”

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