Firefighters rushed into the former City Hall annex, a small red-brick building on the corner of Eighth Street and Broadway, in search of trapped victims Wednesday afternoon.
But it wasn’t the real thing. The victims were dummies, the helmets were plastic wrapped, and there was no fire.
As part of the Columbia Fire Department’s Basic Recruit School, the former Farm & Home Savings Building became search and rescue training ground for the school’s five latest recruits. The building — most recently home to the city’s utility billing, purchasing and payroll offices — is slated to be demolished as part of City Hall renovations, but not before the Fire Department gets more shots at it.
“It’s absolutely paramount that they are trained and proficient in rescue techniques,” Captain Eric Hartman said. “The number one priority is rescue.”
The Fire Department’s school trains recruits from both Columbia and mid-Missouri, Chief Gary Warren Jr. said. Three of the five new recruits are headed for the Columbia Fire Department; two will work for the Jefferson City Fire Department.
The recruits will continue training at the Fire Department’s training facility on Big Bear Boulevard, Warren said. Although the Big Bear location is set up for emergency rescue training, the former city building offers something the training facility can’t.
“It gives them a building that they are not familiar with,” Hartman said. “Which is like the majority of cases they’ll respond to.”
The training began outside with timed drills. The five recruits lined up and waited for the whistle. As soon as it sounded, the recruits put on their suits as quickly as possible before putting on their oxygen tanks and masks.
Warren presided over the drills, shouting out the elapsed time in 10-second intervals and giving occasional advice.
“You’ve got plenty of time, don’t panic,” he said.
When they finished dressing, the recruits clapped their hands to signal the trainers.
Not all the drills went according to plan, though.
When Hartman arrived at 1 p.m. to set up, the smoke machines weren’t working. Instead, he approached the building with plastic wrap in hand.
“We’re gonna put a little Press and Seal on so they won’t be able to see anyway,” Hartman said.
For the first run-through, Glad plastic wrap was stuck to the doors’ glass panes and the recruits’ visors to produce the kind of vision impairment they might experience in a smoky building. By the second round, a borrowed smoke machine had arrived and training continued as planned.
As the training progressed, the recruits moved on to more complicated situations including clearing a building through search-and-rescue and removing an injured victim. The recruits also learned how to work together, entering the building in groups of two or three.
Hartman said the recruits will be returning to the building later to practice proper ventilation techniques for smoke-filled buildings as well as forcible entry into a building through a door, window or wall.
“We’ll do this right before demolition is scheduled,” Hartman said. “Because there will be some damage to the building then.”