Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lessons in how to tame flames

Brandon college for firefighters

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BRANDON -- Future firefighter Adam McKee knew heat rises, but not like this.

A house fire can post a temperature of 600 C at the ceiling. At that temperature, tin melts.

But the difference between the air temperature at the ceiling versus the floor can be extraordinary. A ceiling temperature of 600 C can have a floor temperature of 100 C.

That's why firefighters will crawl into rooms in a house fire, something students such as McKee are taught early on at Brandon's firefighters college.

The Manitoba Emergency Services College in Brandon -- the only such school between Sarnia, Ont., and a new school in Melville, Sask. -- has been turning out firefighters since 1971.

Chances are your friendly neighbourhood firefighter is one of its graduates. It also trains paramedics and runs shorter courses for volunteer firefighters from rural areas.

There are currently 40 students enrolled in the 10-month firefighter program, and there have been up to 64 students. With baby boomers starting to retire, a big demand for young firefighters is expected in the coming years, said Brenda Popko, college director. There are more than 800 firefighters in Winnipeg alone, she said.

The program includes studying fire behaviour and how different homes, depending on their age, respond in a fire. For example, pre-1950s homes don't usually have fire stops in their walls, so a basement fire can climb unseen in the gap between the inner and outer wall all the way to the second or third storey.

Also, synthetic fibres used in modern furniture will not only burn hotter but will emit a dirty, black toxic smoke that impairs vision. New, lighter floor trusses used in modern building construction aren't great in fires, either. They will burn through faster, creating more risk of a main floor collapsing in a basement fire.

"We definitely talk a lot about risk-benefit factors," said instructor Mark Emrick. "If there's a lot of potential for saving lives, we take more risks. But if flames are coming out every orifice of a house, clearly no one will be alive in that house."

Students also learn how to deal with car fires and fuel and propane fires. In addition, the course includes everything from vehicle extrication (using machinery to cut a person out of a vehicle collision) to water rescue.

"I wasn't sure what to expect. Every day, it's something different," said student McKee, who hails from Saskatoon and is the class platoon rep.

"They have 10 very fast and furious months. We tell the students they won't have time for anything else," said Popko.

Students come from all over but about 60 per cent are from Manitoba. Not everyone gets in. You have to pass a physical test, academic test and an interview. The physical test is the toughest. It include running a course wearing a 23-kilogram vest to simulate the weight of the clothing and equipment a firefighter wears.

The test begins with three minutes on a stationery stair climber with additional 5.4-kg weights Velcroed to each shoulder, to simulate carrying a hose pack up a highrise stairwell.

That's followed by the hose drag, then the two-cement-cutters carry, and then pulling the lanyard of an extension ladder and lifting the extension ladder against a building. After that, the fun begins: You have to use a sledgehammer to hit a target hard and accurately enough to make a light go on, to simulate the forcible entry through a wall or door. Then you have to go through a darkened maze filled with obstacles; then drag a 180-pound mannequin over a prescribed distance, as if pulling someone from a fire. Finally, you have to use a pike pole (pointed and hooked) to punch through and pull down a ceiling and wall to simulate checking for fire behind walls.

All that has to be done in a maximum 10 minutes and 20 seconds, or you fail your admission.

Popko said the Hollywood movie image of firefighters sitting around playing poker between fires is not accurate. There are always things for the firefighters to do, she said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2012 A14

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