Members of the Raymondville Volunteer Fire Department, the mother and daughter firefighting tandem of Nikki and Shannon Coleman were among the participants in a structure fire training exercise Saturday in Houston. At 14, Nikki, left, is the youngest firefighter in Texas County.

Nobody could accuse most of Texas County’s volunteer firefighters of not taking their tasks seriously.

In their ongoing quest to do the best possible job with the manpower and equipment they have available, about 35 county firefighters gathered last Saturday at the Gamo USA parking lot in Houston to practice dealing with structure fire. Hosted by the City of Houston Fire Department, the exercise was attended by representatives of five Texas County departments, and featured instruction and a mock-structure provided by Local Emergency Training Specialists (LETS), of Cadet, Mo.

The LETS structure fire training is accomplished using a semi-trailer designed to resemble a burning building. As firefighters take turns going inside, LETS representatives watch through special windows and shielded by cowlings at stations mounted on the outside, and create bursts of propane flame with controls adjacent to each station.

To create a realistic, smoky environment, hay is strategically placed inside the trailer. Meanwhile, other firefighters practice venting fire atop the mock-structure by using chainsaws to cut into plywood.

Houston City training officer Joe Marsillo said the idea is to teach newcomers and remind veterans that fighting fire requires more than just determination and drive; proper technique is also important.

“You don’t just go into a building and drown a fire,” Marsillo said. “You have to use a lot of caution and do things right.”

Proper technique in fighting structure fire involves staying in contact with a wall and other firefighters for guidance, while avoiding the detrimental effects of smoke and extreme air temperatures. The LETS trailer allows trainees to experience most of the aspects of a real fire: heat, smoke, low visibility, and of course, flames.

“Any time you go into a building, you have to keep one foot, shoulder or arm on a wall and you never leave that wall,” Marsillo said. “So in training, they have to move down a hall touching the wall, and one firefighter touches the other. When they get to the end of the trailer, they trade places and the one who was in back gets the nozzle and is in front.”

LETS instructors look for firefighters on the hose to employ a certain spray pattern, and to make sure the nozzle is set for full bore to reduce the possibility of creating fog, which will heat up big-time and negatively affect visibility.

“Of course, you’re on air when you’re in there,” Marsillo said, “and your mask isn’t going to fog up on the inside because you’re breathing air. But steam can fog up the outside in a hurry and then you can’t see anything.”

The training exercise was made possible by a grant obtained last year from the Missouri Division of fire Safety Fire Marshall’s Office. Representatives of the Houston City, Houston Rural, Licking, Raymondville, and Tyrone fire departments participated.

The LETS trailer brings structure fire training to places where it might not otherwise be possible. The nearest fixed structures used for practice are in Rolla and Springfield.

“And it’s great because this is free training for us,” Marsillo said. “Of course, we train together all the time, which is good because when more than one department goes to a real fire scene, everybody’s on the same page.”

Among the participants in last week’s exercise was Texas County’s youngest firefighter, 14-year-old Nikki Coleman of Houston. Nikki and her mother Shannon are both members of the Raymondville Fire Department.

Nikki said the training was actually enjoyable.

“It was hot in there and I couldn’t see a thing,” she said. “But it’s fun, and this is the only way I get to play with fire.”

Raymondville assistant chief Mike Drozdo said that while the LETS training is valuable on several levels, it doesn’t employ some state-of-the-art techniques.

“We use the latest and greatest techniques, utilizing positive pressure attack to ventilate structures we go into,” Drozdo said. “In a normal fire, smoke is particle-charged and is basically like a bomb waiting to go off. We always try to ventilate first, so our firefighters are going into a clean environment. This training is a little bit lacking behind the newer standards, but it’s still phenomenal training, especially for the new people.”

“Smoke is actually unburned fuel,” Marsillo said. “When it gets to a certain temperature, it will flash over, and flash over is what kills guys.

“Depending on what stage it’s in and where you’re at in a room, a real house fire can be between 400 and 600 degrees. In this type of training, it’s only about 250 – but I’ve been through it and even that’s extremely hot.”

Marsillo said he hopes to obtain a grant for technical rescue training within the next year.

“That’s all about ropes,” he said. “It teaches different techniques on rescuing people who have gone down a ravine, or maybe a fella goes up a tree to prune it and has a heart attack. Then you have to go up and get him down.”

Drozdo said practicing on local structures would be welcome and that anyone who has a building to demolish and is willing to donate its use beforehand should contact their local fire department.

“We can help them get the paperwork ready for demolition and then use it for training,” he said. “Then someone can come in and bulldoze it down. We can’t burn it all the way down, because there are laws stating that you can burn a pile of rubbish, but you can’t burn a house.”

On April 14, Houston firefighters will participate in a truck driving training exercise in which each firefighter will practice driving every vehicle owned by the department – from the big ladder truck down to the small rescue truck. That way they’ll be ready to do so for real if necessary.

“If you see a bunch of fire trucks driving around the city, that’s why,” Marsillo said. “We train at least twice a month; it’s all about getting better. We’re making an effort – we’re moving right along and making sure we stay on top of things.”

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