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Donated homes offer unique training opportunities for firefighters in DeKalb County

SYCAMORE – Clouds of smoke emanated from a Sycamore home as firefighters stormed in, hose in hand, to rescue their colleagues.

The smoke was so heavy firefighters couldn’t see a foot in front of them. They crawled through the house, using a thermal imaging camera to find people inside and a rope to find their way out. Firefighters called “mayday” over the radio to tell others where they were and how much oxygen they had left.

It was all just a training exercise, though. There was no fire, and a machine created the smoke Wednesday morning.

“In a real situation, it would be much darker than this,” said Marc Doty, Sycamore assistant fire chief.

The Sycamore Fire Department has been using the house at 221 N. Main St. for the past two weeks for training. Last week, drills focused on firefighters escaping the home through second-story windows. This week, crews were working on rescuing fallen firefighters. Next week, they’ll cut holes into the roof to simulate ventilating smoke and gases.

It’s not often that fire departments use donated homes or other buildings for training. The last time Sycamore had one was about 1½ years ago. DeKalb typically receives a couple of these structures every year, said DeKalb fire Chief Eric Hicks.

Last year, DeKalb firefighters trained at the former Small’s Furniture City building on Sycamore Road. Training involves practicing methods of putting out fires, rescuing victims, rescuing fallen firefighters, escaping through
second-story windows and practicing ventilation of the fire.

“There’s a lot of things you can train with on those,” Hicks said.

Diminishing opportunity

Cortland firefighters are training for the first time in about six years at two acquired structures on Chase Road near the DeKalb County Landfill. Firefighters only are doing search-and-rescue training, said Cortland fire Chief Trent Moser.

Cortland firefighters are receiving fewer acquired structures since developers stopped buying farmland with farmhouses on the property, Moser said. The two acquired structures provide a rare opportunity for training.

“Whenever we get offered, we take advantage of it,” Moser said.

The same thing is happening in Sycamore. Homeowner Rick Turner of Turner Law Offices, 107 W. Exchange St., Sycamore, let the fire department use the abandoned home he plans to tear it down in about a month to create a parking lot for his business. He hopes to have the 15-stall parking lot ready by this fall.

Doty approached Turner during the city council meeting after Turner’s plans to create the parking lot were approved and asked if the fire department could use it.

“I have several friends in the fire department and several friends who are police officers,” Turner said. “Any time I can donate something that’ll be of some benefit to them, I’m happy to do it.”

More realistic training

Sycamore firefighters do most of their training at either of their two fire stations. Mazes are sometimes set up at the fire stations, and firefighters turn the hoods on their masks backwards to impair their vision, said firefighter Matt Anderson.

Anderson became a firefighter in Sycamore in 2010. Before that, he was a volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Malta. Anderson said the training he is currently involved in is similar to the things he did while at the Arlington Heights Fire Academy.

“It reiterates all of the stuff you learn right away,” he said. “It keeps skills fresh in your mind.”

Sycamore fire intern David Zern is still learning. Zern was dressed in gear identical to other firefighters Wednesday and played the part of an unconscious firefighter who had to be carried out of the house.

When a firefighter needs to be rescued, an alarm goes over the firefighters’ radios. Two firefighters, called the rapid intervention team, stand by at every fire in case they need to rescue other firefighters. A statewide organization called the mutual aid box alarm system decides what fire departments are assigned to what job on the scene.

Zern appreciated being able to train at the donated home.

“Working in an actual house with our tools and not having to worry about wrecking someone’s home, it’s awesome,” he said. “Having a structure like this makes you feel more prepared for the job at hand.”

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