Mobile training trailer takes ‘controlled burn’ to new levelsThe Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD) has received “a giant boost to training,” in the words of Captain Jesse Buhs, in the form of a 53-foot mobile live burn trailer that’s two stories tall and can burn up to three fires at a time. The unit is completely fueled by propane that is so clean burning they can set it up anywhere, and it’s completely controlled through a computer system for safety.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
The Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD) has received “a giant boost to training,” in the words of Captain Jesse Buhs, in the form of a 53-foot mobile live burn trailer that’s two stories tall and can burn up to three fires at a time. The unit is completely fueled by propane that is so clean burning they can set it up anywhere, and it’s completely controlled through a computer system for safety.
“It’s the most advanced unit of its type in northern Minnesota,” said CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder, adding that there are only a couple of similar units in the state, all of which are older.
The trailer is manufactured by the Drager Corporation of Kingston, Ontario, and Schroeder said company representatives have been in Cloquet for the past week for training purposes.
“We’ve trained on every component of the unit including the computer, the mechanicals and the hydraulics,” said Schroeder Tuesday. “Today is actually the culmination, where we actually start from ground zero with the trailer packed up, and we’re going to take it right through to an actual burn evolution.”
The CAFD was able to purchase the unit through a federal FEMA “Assistance to Firefighters” training grant of $350,000.
“This is not a unit we’d have ever dreamed of having in the district itself – let alone in the area – if it weren’t for the federal grant program,” Schroeder said.
After one unsuccessful attempt at the grant before the department changed over to a fire district, they decided to attempt a second try and Schroeder wrote the grant himself.
“We had identified training as an area that was lacking for our firefighters,” he explained. “We had been trying to figure out ways to either build a small facility locally or to find somewhere we could train in this type of activity, but we were striking out.”
This time, however, the collaborative nature and expanded reach of the fire district resulted in a successful grant award in April 2010. The department put together bid specifications and went through a bid process before selecting Drager on both a cost and features basis. According to Byron Charbonneau, the automotive-engineer-turned mobile-burn-simulator engineer who designed the unit, the company has manufactured and placed eight of the state-of-the-art training units thus far, one in Canada and the rest in the U.S.
“They’re expensive so it’s usually schools or colleges that buy them,” said Schroeder. “Ours is the only fire district in the state I know of that has one of this capability.”
The entire front half of the mobile unit is comprised of gas storage and a computer room. The rear is the actual burn chamber, with a window and entry door on each side. In one end is a multi-prop burn simulator set up as a kitchen, and on the other end is a couch assembly.
The second story raises and lowers for highway transport and provides full two-story training capability, either from the main floor so firefighters can make their way up to a fire above or from on top, working their way down as if they were going into a basement.
Over the room with the couch is a rollover simulator. When they light it up, the fire actually rolls across the ceiling much like it would in a real house. The inside of the trailer is completely reconfigurable since all the walls are removable panels, and they can set up any number of layouts they want, such as hallways, closets, etc. They also have props for firefighter rescue and a forcible entry door where the firefighters can practice forcing their way into locked doors.
The trailer has a sprinkler system for training on different hose leads for commercial buildings and sprinkler controls, and the upstairs has a burn prompt where operators can create a third fire if desired. A roof ventilation simulator can be raised to the pitch of an actual house roof, and in the center section firefighters can actually chain saw or ax their way through, just as they would in ventilating a regular roof so they can gain actual hands-on ventilation practice.
The training teams actually use the same hose lines they would in a normal fire.
“We go in and have complete control over the size of the fire from a control unit that the instructor has with him,” explained Schroeder. “As we’re applying water, the fire will go down and eventually when we’re ready, we’ll extinguish it. To the people on the nozzle, it will act exactly like a standard residential or commercial fire would.”
Smoke generated within the unit is created by injecting a vegetable oil-type liquid in an atomized form through a hot nozzle and turns into “smoke,” similar to what you’d see if you put vegetable oil in a frying pan and start heating it up.
“Even on a hot day like today,” said Schroeder, “it disappears as soon as it comes out the door.”
The unit has a self-contained power system in the generator, which runs off two 420-gallon propane tanks in the truck. Outside of that, all that’s needed to operate it for training purposes is water. The unit is entirely lined and put together with special steel granite fiberglass insulation that will withstand the heat.
Schroeder said though the department just recently took delivery of the training trailer, they have already had requests from other departments to train on it.
“As part of the grant, we have to make it available on a cost-neutral basis to any department that requests it,” he explained. “We can recoup our costs on operating the unit, but we’re not in it to make money.”
Schroeder said the benefits of the mobile training facility are almost too numerous to mention.
“It allows us to train at will and not have to wait until somebody donates a house to us, which sometimes can be every six months and sometimes three or four years,” he said. “It also provides 100 percent control. We can shut the fire off with the touch of a button, and we can control the size of a fire and have control over what the firefighters are seeing and what they experience, which we don’t have in a regular structure fire. When you’re doing repetitive training and looking for technique and standard procedure it’s nice to have that kind of control so you can stop in the middle, explain to the guys, ‘Here’s what we’re seeing and here’s why we want to do it,’ and then just start it back up again.”
Schroeder added that every year the requirements for training seem to increase dramatically, adding it’s almost cost-prohibitive to send people any real distance, in part due to the expense and in part because, when a department sends a group of people large enough to actually train as a unit, it starts lowering the protection available in their community because everybody is out of town.
“This unit will allow us to train the entire district, or with four or five different departments here all at once, working together, with everyone still in their own home area,” said Schroeder. “Also, with the tractor we have, we can bring it to individual departments so they don’t have to travel. It’s really a capability we’ve not had in northern Minnesota – ever. We’re really excited about it.”
The trailer will tentatively be parked in the yard of the district’s Station 3 adjacent to the Scanlon Community Center, but as soon as the district takes over a small building on the grounds of the center as their training building, they hope to develop either an asphalt or gravel pad next to it for the trailer. The truck itself will be stored at the city of Cloquet’s shed.
This week’s training dealt primarily with some 20 firefighters in the district who volunteered to be part of an operator class, which represents about one-third of the overall personnel in the district.
“Mostly we asked people who were interested, in addition to our training staff,” Schroeder said. “We needed people who wanted to do this, because it involves a two-day operator course and, as trailer operators, they’re going to be the ones who have to haul it around.”
He said the balance of the department will train there and act as instructors, since an instructor must be part of every training group that goes inside the trailer.
Operating costs for the unit will be paid through the CAFD budget, and when it is rented out to other departments, they will be able to recoup their costs for transport, fuel, propane, etc.
After the first training group went through the mobile unit on Tuesday, firefighter Thor Trone was impressed.
“It’s very realistic, with the rollover and the props that the fire comes out of,” Trone said. “It gives you a real good sense of what’s building, along with how to approach the knock downs. It’s going to be a very useful tool.”
“It’s a really good training tool to learn how to combat fires more effectively instead of going into a house and waiting for the fire,” added firefighter Matt Hecht.
Firefighter Jesse Buhs agreed, adding that it is useful “especially for our newest firefighters because they’re basically being asked to perform their first day on the job.”
“Rather than waiting to acquire a house or building to burn and going through all the permitting and set-up time, we can bring them here and get them some of the basics and advanced training right away so they’re prepared,” he said. “That’s one of our biggest hurdles – and it always has been – getting new people the experience they need.
“There’s a lot of competition for these grants. Every department our size and bigger wants one. We showed the need and Kevin wrote an exceptional grant.”
Schroeder and the entire staff of the CAFD are understandably excited about the potential of the new mobile trainer.
“I still can’t believe it’s sitting here…” said Schroeder.