Tools of a trying trade: Bath firefighters learn essential skills under pressure

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BATH — Area firefighters had the opportunity on a recent Saturday morning to suit up in about 50 pounds of gear, grab hoses and head into a burning building – with more than the usual amount of confidence.

The fire training exercise held May 23 off Wing Farm Parkway in Bath instead offered many lessons in staying calm and keeping safe.

Firefighters from Bath, West Bath and Phippsburg gathered that morning to start and manage a controlled burn of a vacant house. The house, where a neighboring barn was also recently burned for instructional purposes, sits on city-owned land that will soon be developed as part of the second phase of Bath’s Wing Farm Business Park.

Bath Fire Chief Steve Hinds said it’s not often that a house is available for fire training; twice a year on average.

“You don’t get buildings very often that are out, away from everything,” he said. “Ample room around to operate and move people.”

This training exercise was geared toward basic firefighter skills, he said: “More indoctrination into how fire is going to react in a building … how the heat goes from a dry, hot condition to very damp, boiling … the room is 1,200 degrees, you put water up into the ceiling and before it gets back down on your helmet it’s boiling. You shoot up, but when it rains down, it rains down steam and boiling water.”

Being exposed to an actual fire helps less-experienced firefighters know what to expect in a true emergency situation. More than 20 men and women were involved in the training exercise. Safety is always critical, but when trainees are involved, it is an even greater factor, Hinds said.

For a reporter being guided around the premises while taking photos in the fire’s early stages, the smoke was a shock: blinding and, without a mask at first, suffocating.

“People think it’s like walking around in your house at night,” Hinds said. “It’s not. It’s just like walking in a mine. It’s just dark. There’s no light coming in anywhere. … You get crawling around in those closets and things like that where we were working, it’s total darkness.

“You just grope around,” he added. “You learn how to sweep with your arms. … We can tell you what a door jamb is … without looking at it, because we’re used to touching them all the time.”

Along with boiling rain and smoke, firefighters face crumbling debris. Even standing away from a burning building, bursting windows can be dangerous, along with the wall of intense heat that expands from the structure as it is consumed.

“It’s dirty, and hot, and wet and messy,” Hinds said. “And everything we touch or do in a building is dirty, because it’s soot and it’s grime. And we make mud when we throw water. All of that soot is now mud.”

The heat will drain a person. “They say (it’s) exertion, and you do exert a lot,” Hinds said. “It’s a lot of work. But the heat; the heat draws you right down. … We’re generating heat; it’s not just smoke, and it’s hot in there. And with all that gear on, it’s even hotter. It wears you down.”

It becomes that much more essential to drink water. The suit is like a cocoon; intended to keep heat out, it also keeps body heat in. When the gear comes off, Hinds pointed out, it peels off.

It’s important to have a training fire last long enough so the trainees all have a chance to perform every function, Hinds said. The crews were in the building for about an hour as it burned, and they handled fires at several locations in the structure during that time.

Firefighters learn about hoses, nozzles and appliances, the reaction of the line, and how to pull a line through the obstacles inside a building. They learn how to sound walls before breaching them, to know where the studs are first, as well as how to use a breathing apparatus, set ladders, wash, roll and hang hoses, and clean out windows.

“Things that people wouldn’t think of,” Hinds said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or

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firefighters2.jpgBath firefighters advance into a house off Wing Farm Parkway during a fire training exercise May 23. (Lear photo)

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.