While Clinton Fire Department’s fire training facility already has been used for some training, it continues to take shape. And, eventually, Clinton firefighters should be able to do the majority of their training locally, saving the city quite a bit of money.
“We pay a lot of money for individual groups to go to Champaign to the Fire Service Institute,” says Dan Ballenger, commissioner of public health and safety.
The Illinois Fire Service Institute is a University of Illinois program that offers more than 300 classes throughout the year for firefighters.
Having the facility in town also plays in to how much property owners pay for insurance. The fire department recently received an upgraded rating by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), the agency that rates fire departments’ performance and capabilities for the insurance industry. The higher the rating, the lower the insurance rates.
ISO rates 47,000 fire departments in the U.S., with Clinton Fire Department now among the top 5,000, and having comprehensive training available in Clinton will be a good thing for that rating.
Fire departments are increasingly conducting more in-house training for their personnel, Ballenger says.
“We were doing a lot of our own training, but we were restricted as far as what we could do,” he says.
But, departments have starting using steel shipping containers to build mock-ups of structures that can be used for firefighting practice …real fire, real smoke and a variety of firefighting situations.
“We can have live burns, and they’re just so realistic inside,” Ballenger says. “And, we can control them.”
The department began looking into buying some of the containers, which cost them about $2,600 each.
“We couldn’t build them for that,” he says.
The stacked containers have been attached to one another and mounted on concrete footings. The department enlisted help from engineers at The Farnsworth Group.
“We submitted everything to them and they were able to let us know we were doing everything right,” Ballenger says.
The containers themselves already are engineered, but Farnsworth examined plans for interior stairways and other modifications to ensure their safety.
“And, then, it’s up to us to do an inspection every time we use them,” Ballenger says. “We’ve also had to set up policies about how to use them properly.”
Early in 2018, work began in earnest on the project, starting with concrete footings on which the containers would rest and hauling in millings from street work, essentially ground up asphalt, as a surface around the facility.
Then they began stacking containers and welding them together.
Six containers make up the main structure, and later two containers mounted separately on end will serve as practice towers for practicing high-rope rescue, among other things.
“In case we have to rescue someone from a roof or something like that,” Ballenger says.
The main structure also will have areas for firefighters to practice cutting through roofs, and rails will be mounted around the tops of the containers. Windows and doorways have been cut through spots in the containers so firefighters can practice crawling through those openings to fight fires.
“Anything we think we’ll run in to in a fire call or anything, we want to be able to train on it there.”
A local towing service donated some junk cars, so firefighters can practice on car fires and extracations.
The site measures 4.8 acres, which meets the state requirement for this type of facility.
Furniture and appliances will be set up in the structure to make it as realistic as possible. Blake West is in charge of training at the department and will design the scenarios firefighters will use to practice.
Designated areas of the structure will hold the fire so the heat can be controlled, partly to prevent warping of the structure’s metalwork, but firefighters will practice in real conditions with actual smoke created from the fire.
“They’ll make their attack just like if they were at a home,”Ballenger says. “They’ll string their lines in and practice air pack training and everything.”
Although most training will take place locally, the department still can take advantage of some classes offered at the U of I.
“The U of I offers six or seven free trainings on weekends for live fire training,” says Blake West. “And, we’re not going to tell guys they can’t go.”
But, West added they wouldn’t send the entire department over to Champaign and leave the city unprotected.
With most training now handled in Clinton, firefighters will be ready to handle fire calls even if they are at a training session. And, other area departments would be able to use the facility as well under Clinton department supervision.
The equipment, such as ladders, used for calls will be the same used for training, which is one reason the department tests its equipment on a regular basis. All of the department’s ladders, for example, recently passed stress tests.
“You can get hurt training too, so we’re trying to do everything by the book,” Ballenger said.
The project has been funded with donations and primarily volunteer labor.