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The Daily Register - Harrisburg, IL
  • American Coal firefighters get refresher course at SIC

  • The Southeastern Illinois College's Fire Safety Program was working in the Burn Tunnel Monday afternoon.
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  • The Southeastern Illinois College's Fire Safety Program was working in the Burn Tunnel Monday afternoon.
    SIC offers a comprehensive fire safety educational program which is geared to civilian and mine firefighter. On Monday, after a morning spent working in the building fire simulator, instructors Bobby Williams, Rob Williams and Brock Whitehead led their students into the burn tunnel for a lesson on fire development.
    “Our goal here is to educate firefighters on how a fire develops, from the incipient stage to a full fledged fire,” Williams said.
    Williams stated that the fire safety program is oriented to the individual needs of the students, acting as a refresher course for experienced firefighters and an introductory course for beginning firefighters.
    “Most of the students that come through our program are or will be full time professional firefighters,” Williams said. “We teach them and we also learn a lot from what they can teach us from their experience.”
    Modern firefighting gear consists of fire retardant outer garments, boots and gloves, as well as a sophisticated mask and helmet system and auxiliary equipment such as a movement detecting device which emits a loud alarm when a firefighter does not move after a set time.
    “This is to alert the firefighters of a ‘Man Down’ situation,” Williams said.
    The mask is equipped with a communication system which allows electronically amplified voice commands to be heard over in the noisy fire environment and a visual monitoring system to keep the firefighter appraised of the amount of oxygen in their breathing tanks, as well as providing fresh air to the firefighter. Altogether, the gear weighs about 60 pounds, including the oxygen tank and harness. The oxygen supply is designed to provide anywhere from 30 minutes to 60 minutes of air in a fire environment, though this is based on the oxygen consumption of a person at rest.
    “It won't last as long when your fighting a fire,” Williams said. “You have to keep a close eye on your oxygen gauge as well.”
    After gearing up, the instructors and students moved into the burn tunnel and began the fire development exercise. The tunnel is made of a corrugated steel half circles, laid out in a “T” formation. The practice fire was lit on one “arm” of the T. As the fire source, made up of straw and wood pallets, flared up, the tunnel quickly filled to nearly floor level with smoke. After a very few minutes the temperature inside the tunnel was too hot for an unprotected person to stand for more the a few seconds.
    Inside, instructors showed the students the stages of the fire’s development and it's production of dangerous amounts of smoke. While the conditions inside did not reach more than 300 to 400 degrees, the suits of the firefighter were very hot to the touch when they emerged after the 30 minute exercise. The instructors led the students through the signs to watch for, the tell-tale stages of fire development and practiced the proper methods of applying the water hose to combat fires.
    Page 2 of 2 - These courses allow firefighter to learn and refresh their skills, with many firefighting crews going through the program routinely.
    “Fighting a fire in a mine is a very challenging situation,” Williams said. “Not only do you have the fire, you have a large number of synthetic products which give off a great deal of very toxic smoke. Also, depending on the ventilation system in the mine, whether or not it is still functioning in a fire situation and your location in
    relation to it, you can quickly run into serious problems.
    “In a structure fire, a firefighter usually has a way to retreat from the fire, in a mine, it is very hard to back up safely if a fire gets out of control. For the mine fire brigades, I always remind them they are not just fighting to protect the miners and their fellow
    firefighters, they are fighting to protect their livelihood. A serious mine fire can shut a mine down for a very long time and that is their source of income.”
    The students in Monday’s class were all mine fire brigade members, working at the American Coal mine in Galatia. Veteran mine fire brigade member and American Coal firefighter Jim Wilson was there to monitor the class. Wilson had real experience fighting an underground fire in the 1990s and recounted how the heat quickly built up and firefighters had to work in shifts with as little as 10 to 15 minutes
    spent by each shift.
    “It got so hot in there that the runoff water was steaming, like a sauna. We were wading almost hip deep in some places,” Wilson said.
    Bobby Williams said that the training theses students received was crucial to successfully fighting a fire, both above and underground.
    In a fire, Williams said, there is no time to review proper techniques and procedures, it must be a reaction rather the a reasoned process.
    Williams said that since the beginning of this year, over 300 firefighters have been through the SIC fire safety program.
    After the exercise in the burn tunnel, the firefighter moved to an adjacent equipment building to shed their gear, cool off with cold Gatorade and review the lesson. Many expressed surprise at how quickly the heat built up and appreciation for how educational the lesson was. Another instructor, Rob Williams commented on the nature of their job, “Firefighting is an ever evolving process. It is always changing.”

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