CAPE GIRARDEAU — Without even breaking ground on its $125 million casino, Isle of Capri has made hundreds of Southeast Missouri firefighters, most from the Cape Girardeau department, feel like they've hit the jackpot.
Using more than 20 vacant properties — some commercial and some residential — belonging to Isle, more than 100 firefighters from at least a dozen fire departments have spent numerous days in February north of downtown Cape Girardeau, carrying out extensive training exercises.
The varying styles of homes, many of them built in the 1920s or 1930s, have allotted crews time for ventilation practices, several live burns and fire suppression tactics and other forcible entry techniques. Cape Girardeau Fire Department Battalion Chief Mike Ramsey, who is coordinating most of the training, said it's rare to come across so many properties at one time and firefighters have benefited immensely from the training so far. The last time area departments had the same opportunity was during a series of buyouts after the 1993 flood, Ramsey said.
Ramsey expects crews to be able to use several more properties soon, though he didn't how many exactly.
"Normally, we do train every day, but it's not this type of training necessarily, not this intense," Ramsey said. "It's nice because it gives us a chance to use houses, then they get (demolished), and we don't have to do a lot of work on them to prepare or to take them down."
Although the structures could have just been demolished, Jill Haynes, Isle's communications director, said the company believes it's vital for emergency responders to train as often as possible. The last two Isle construction projects — casinos built in Waterloo, Iowa, and Pompano Beach, Fla. — didn't allow for the company to offer up properties for emergency training purposes.
At one location, Haynes said, there weren't any properties to take down.
"It is a common request when you have a construction project that involves tear-downs because there's frequently not a vacant building they can just burn down," Haynes said. "If there is assistance we can provide, we do what we can to be a good corporate citizen."
About 13 structures along Spanish, Mill and Mason streets were used by fire crews starting Feb. 14, and demolition by Nip Kelly Equipment Co. on many of the properties followed shortly after. Haynes said she wasn't sure how many structures in the area had been demolished yet. As a safety precautions Nip Kelly takes them down almost immediately following the training exercise, she said.
"It's a fluid situation," she said. "Tomorrow the number may be different. It will be an evolving number."
Isle is paying for demolition, Haynes added, though she wouldn't disclose the total cost. She also couldn't say how many acres Nip Kelly would be leveling for the casino's construction.
Ramsey said the homes firefighters used for ventilation training presented a challenge because there were some steep sections of roofing. Firefighters focused on cutting holes in the roofs of the varying structures, becoming familiar with different construction methods they can encounter when fighting a residential home fire.
"At the same time, though, some of the structures had low-pitched porches on the back. Safety-wise it was a good mix," Ramsey said.
More than 30 emergency personnel participated in a search and rescue demonstration at a home at 220 Pearl St., where crews generated heat and smoke for realistic conditions and used thermal imaging cameras to conduct a search of the structure. Rescue dummies were placed in the building, and firefighters had to locate them, Ramsey said. The home was also used by Cape Girardeau firefighters and Gordonville Fire Protection District for a live-burn demonstration following the mock rescue mission.
Firefighters from Whitewater, Jackson, NBC Fire District and Ste. Genevieve have also used the Isle properties for training purposes. Ramsey said he expects Kennett and Sikeston crews to join them for a demonstration soon.
At 825 and 827 Spanish St. — two nearly identical structures — firefighters worked a second live burn recently, when they also performed a sprinkler demonstration. Before the burn, Brian Shaffer, another Cape Girardeau training coordinator, and other battalion chiefs were preparing the structures for demonstration. Shaffer said it's important to have the structures equipped with typical household items and identical materials, such as wall paneling.
"There has to be a decent amount of flammables in there," Ramsey said. "I think, too, it sends the message that this could be somebody's home."
Up to 10 additional structures could be demolished soon. Around 11 structures were demolished in the area before Jan. 1.
A date for the Isle's groundbreaking ceremony has not yet been set, Haynes said.
"At this point the schedule is kind of falling into place as things are happening," she said. "We continue to work on our design work and bid work."