NORTH YARMOUTH — The rooms are dark, each step precarious, the air choked with layers of smoke as an army of heavy-suited firefighters, clenching a water hose, proceeds into the burning building.
But last weekend, inside a specially prepared house in Yarmouth, the burn was controlled; education was the focus. The skills these students learned will help themselves and their comrades when they someday face the very real and dangerous thing.
The exercise was part of the North Yarmouth Fire and Rescue Department’s firefighter training program, which began last November and runs through the spring. About 20 people of varying ages and backgrounds are taking part.
“This is the accumulation of a whole bunch of classes that they’ve been taking, and just doing individual objectives,” department Deputy Chief Harold Stoddard said Jan. 25. Students were putting those pieces together, he explained, experiencing what it is like to have a fire overhead and getting a chance to attack the flames.
“It just makes the difference between practicing single objectives, versus practicing a whole (firefighting) scenario,” Stoddard said.
On Saturday, the students rolled in on a fire truck, just as if they were arriving at a real-world emergency. They were organized into teams for each task, such as a lifting a ladder to access an upper story, or carrying a water hose through the entrance and along a winding course of rooms and stairways.
The Yarmouth house – moved from East Elm Street to a site near the town’s transfer station about 20 years ago – is used 30-35 weekends a year by fire companies throughout the region, said Yarmouth Fire-Rescue Chief Mike Robitaille. A special material in the building’s two “burn rooms” allow for fires to be set and extinguished in a contained setting, preserving the house for future training.
A sprinkler system in those rooms activates should the fire ever get out of control. Only palettes, hay or straw are burned.
“We’re just trying to teach (the students) fire behavior,” Robitaille explained. “So it’s not like the standard room and content that you have at your house. Temperatures are a little different, behaviors are a little different.”
Still, the simulation helps make for a rigorous training program.
“This group here will do 200-plus hours of basic firefighting that allows them into the building,” Robitaille said, noting that the students must undertake written and practical exams administered by the state before graduating as level-II firefighters.
Stoddard, a retired Portland firefighter and longtime North Yarmouth resident, praised people putting in time and effort to learn the skills. While many communities have seen a lack of volunteers, North Yarmouth has not had that problem, and even has an officer dedicated to new recruits, he said.
Kate Olson, one of the students, moved to North Yarmouth from Chebeague Island two years ago. She said she became involved with the department because she wanted to meet new people and become more involved with the community.
“Everything that I’m doing, I’m learning,” she said. “… It’s very intimidating, but it’s always very rewarding.”
Alex Carr, a retired U.S. Navy commander who is now a lieutenant with North Yarmouth Fire and Rescue, said the transition has been a good one and keeps him active.
One of the reasons he got involved was “to make the town smaller for me,” he said. “It’s a small town, but I didn’t know anybody. I only moved here in June. So I’ve met a lot of people, and that’s paid off in different ways. … We’re not only neighbors, but we’re friends.”
David DiBiase, another lieutenant, underwent training last year, “and what I was able to get out of it was phenomenal.”
As an instructor, he wants to relay the information he learned to the trainees “so that as we work as a team through North Yarmouth, we’re all on the same page, we all have the same training, we know what to expect from one another.”
“The background of these people just blows me away,” Stoddard said, noting their education and experience in other fields. “And here they are, helping us. They’re volunteering, and they’re putting themselves through this. … These guys really come from diversified backgrounds, but they just want to give back to the community. It’s just really cool stuff.”
North Yarmouth firefighting trainees charge into the Yarmouth house used to simulate a real-world emergency.
About 20 volunteers are undergoing months of training to become North Yarmouth firefighters.
A North Yarmouth firefighting trainee blasts water from a smoke-filled room as part of an exercise on Jan. 25.
Bill Young, captain of emergency medical services with the North Yarmouth Fire and Rescue Department, looks on as water is sprayed outside the training building in Yarmouth.
Yarmouth Fire-Rescue Chief Mike Robitaille explains ladder-handling skills to North Yarmouth trainees.