GJ Fire Department yearns for training facility after big blazes

Grand Junction firefighters battle the White Hall fire with a ladder truck during September of 2011. The fire helped departments evaluate the way they fight fires.

Firefighters still have the partially melted ladder that their cohorts scurried down minutes before the burning wall of St. Joseph’s classroom collapsed.

While the ladder remains as a reminder of firefighters’ escape from death, the lessons from that billowing 2005 fire didn’t stick. Much more live fire training and better leadership on fighting commercial fires are necessary, they determined.

Those are two of the conclusions the Grand Junction Fire Department arrived at after firefighters contributed to an extensive report on last September’s White Hall fire.

Ironically — and, firefighters would say, unfortunately — the two structure fires had several commonalities.

Both fires occurred in commercial structures — churches a few blocks apart on White Avenue. The blazes started in the early morning hours. Firefighters initially attempted the same tactics on the churches as they do in their daily work, working offensively to knock down fires as quickly as possible in residential homes.

But these were not regular house fires. Intense heat had long been building in the burning churches and by the time firefighters arrived and began battling the blazes, they had little indication that their lives were at risk.

The firefighters who finally were instructed to come down from the ladder that chilly December morning in 2005 sobered as they watched the fire’s back draft explode through the ceiling and tear down the south wall. In a similarly close call, six years later, firefighter Cory Black fell through the floor of White Hall during the Sept. 15 fire. While Black ultimately was uninjured after being rescued by two fellow firefighters, the scare of that mayday call rippled through the Fire Department.

“We thought we were listening to him dying,” one firefighter commented in the White Hall report.

Grand Junction firefighters spend most of their firefighting time battling house blazes, working quickly to knock down flames in an effort to save lives and property. But fires in commercial structures are an entirely different beast and require different firefighting tactics and leadership than they are taught, firefighters said.

One of the problems is that some new Grand Junction firefighter recruits come to the job without any live fire training, Grand Junction Fire Chief Ken Watkins said. Without a local training facility where live fires can be conducted, firefighters get creative occasionally burning down homes or training without fire at large facilities.

“For a couple of our people that was the first fire they had ever been on,” Watkins said of the White Hall blaze. “We have had firefighters come from the academy, (and) they don’t know how to judge the environment.”

Watkins has introduced to Grand Junction city councilors the idea of investing city dollars in a fire training facility. Its estimated cost is $3.1 million and would include a drill and burn tower, props that could be burned and an area for firetrucks to set up. Watkins said the facility could be funded in part by grants.

Currently, Grand Junction firefighters travel to Rangely for half-day training. Costs for the training run about $4,500 for travel, which include driving fire vehicles long distances and a sending a host of new recruits with seasoned firefighters. Costs increase as training is conducted during off hours and the work is considered overtime.

The Colorado National Guard opens its facility to the Fire Department for classroom training, but soon firefighters may be able to get class time in the training room at the Grand Junction’s Police Department’s new public safety center, Watkins said. Firefighters also will be able to get classroom space at its department’s new administration building, which is slated to be under construction starting in October.

Firefighters also train at a three-story building at the Grand Junction Regional Center. They black out their masks, listening on radios for cues and directions while crawling on hands and knees through pigeon droppings and around obstacles in the aging building with holes in the roof. Recently, firefighters practiced burning down a home near Riverside Parkway, an ideal location because the house was far away from other homes. They’ve also practiced without live burns at the former Ashley Furniture location and in buildings at Colorado Mesa University.

“Other departments do heat training once a week,” Watkins said. “It’s the biggest requirement that we don’t have.”


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