Sunday, February 15, 2004

Flashover simulator unused

Year after firefighter's death, department lacks trainers

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A simulator meant to teach Cincinnati firefighters how to detect the kind of conditions that killed a firefighter last year sits unused because the department doesn't have enough training staff.

The equipment, bought with a federal grant, teaches firefighters to spot signs of a flashover, the fire phenomenon that occurs when a fire gets so intense an entire room explodes into a ball of flame. A flashover killed Oscar Armstrong III in March 2003 - the first on-duty fire death in more than 20 years.

Cincinnati firefighters are taught about flashovers from textbooks. But they did not have a way to safely practice how to detect such signs until the simulator arrived. And in the wake of Armstrong's death, the department mandated that every firefighter be trained in the simulator.

But Chief Robert Wright said his small training staff is too busy with other work to teach firefighters on the simulator.

"It's still a good tool," he said. "We just don't have enough people right now.''

Mayor Charlie Luken "thinks the chief needs to re-evaluate the staffing because training needs to be a priority," said a spokesman, Brendon Cull.

The only time the simulator was used was when city officials, reporters and others spent a day in October learning about the fire department, said Joe Arnold, president of the firefighters union.

Other training needs

The simulator, in a tractor-trailer rigged so trainees can sit low and watch the flashover above them, allows teachers to repeatedly set a fire as firefighters learn flashover signs: extra-black smoke, a quick increase in heat and tendrils of flame that mean the fire has super-heated enough to ignite gases in the air.

Cincinnati learned first-hand the dangers of a flashover years before Armstrong's death. In 1997, firefighter Jerrold Ware dove out a four-story window after being engulfed in a flashover while saving a 4-year-old girl.

Arnold said the simulator - bought with a $48,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, plus $20,000 in city money - is illustrative of a broader training problem.

Five trainers

The department's staff - one district chief supervising five trainers - is too small to keep up with current demands in fire and emergency medical updates as well as increasing state-mandated training, Arnold said. And starting in July, the five trainers also will have to teach a group of about 20 new recruits - the first class the department has had since 2001. All other training has to stop then, Arnold said, because the teachers will be busy with the recruits.

"What does the police department have? Sixteen, 18 people?'' he said. "We have five."

The Cincinnati Police Department's training academy, whose members also teach new recruits and ongoing training updates for veterans, has a civilian director, lieutenant, three sergeants, seven instructors and support staff.

The fire department no longer has a designated place to set fires in order to train. The 1950 building the department had used was condemned last year. The process for replacing it has started. But finishing it will take two to four years, Arnold said.

"That's a real problem for us," he said.

Overtime issues

Wright can temporarily or permanently assign more people to the training staff. But doing so would require him to spend more overtime money to cover the shifts of firefighters moved to training, he said.

"That's not a good situation either," he said.

He said he's already spending thousands in overtime to cover for firefighters who have been called to active military duty. The department's 2004 budget is $58.4 million - a 6 percent increase over 2003. Most of that was added to cover the 5 percent wage increases and other increased benefits negotiated with the union last year. The jump also included more than $453,000 to cover increased overtime.

"It's not fair that (the chief) has to choose between rapid assistance training and using the flashover simulator," Arnold said. "You're talking about two very important firefighter survival things."


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