Several years ago when the former Seabolt plant on Highway 259 came up for sale, First Assistant Chief Jerry Schlosser, with the Leitchfield Fire Department, had a big vision.
Schlosser saw potential in the bit of real estate with one nondescript building and a small swath of concrete, and suggested that the LFD purchase the old plant and turn it into a training center.
He rallied the other members of the department around the idea, and over the years, the group has turned that acquisition into one of the best firefighter training centers in the area.
The newest addition to the training center is currently being completed with a grant from the state and is a practice ‘house’ built for the purpose of allowing firefighters to practice navigating unfamiliar structures by feel and to gain experience with venting a house by using the standard method of cutting a hole in the roof for heat to escape.
The building, which sits toward the back of the fenced property, has a maze of movable walls so that trainees will always have a new scenario to practice with. Since firefighters often cannot use sight to navigate during a fire, the structure has black painted walls, blackout windows and will be filled with smoke during exercises.
Additionally, the building has a unique adaptation that will allow trainees to practice cutting a hole in the roof to release heat from a structure. Trainers can take out a special removable section of roof and lay down a piece of plywood, which the practicing firefighters will then cut into. This allows for repeated practice without causing any harm to the structure.
The building also has two different rooves so that firefighters can practice working on varying levels of steepness.
The new structure, which made use of some existing materials and a state grant, which is given yearly to various fire departments across Kentucky, should be ready to use within the coming weeks.
“It’s just a blessing,” said Schlosser, who reminisced about how far the department has come since he joined in 1972.”You have to go a long way to find a training facility this good.”
Schlosser explained that the current facility was put together “bit by bit.”
The space has slowly been concreted, little by little, over the years, and now includes a training tower, burn room, shooting range, open trench, underground system and manhole, water treatment tank, and outdoor space for practicing on donated vehicles with the jaws of life in addition to the newest building and the original structure used by the Seabolt plant.
The tower, which is five stories tall, is equipped with a sprinkler system for the firefighters to practice with and a fire hydrant nearby outside. The building has windows for practicing rescues from a ladder, and is often filled with smoke during practice as well. Many times, a 160-pound dummy is hidden in the tower to be ‘rescued.’
Also, the outside of the structure has been constructed in a way to allow it to be used for repelling practice as well.
The burn room sits behind the tower and is a short, highly fire-resistant structure in which trainers will build a fire with donated wooden pallets. Training firefighters are then sent into the building to put the fire out.
The purpose of this exercise is not only to practice extinguishing the flames, but to help newer trainees get used to the fire and get over the distress of being in such conditions.
The heat in the burn room is closely monitored by a high-tech thermostat system that will give readings of the temperature at different points in the room.
Schlosser explained that one of the things firefighters learn here is to stay low, since heat rises and the temperatures near the ceiling are often hot enough to melt the firefighters’ gear.
One of the main things in training, according to Schlosser, is to get new firefighters over their fears of not just fire, but also other scenarios they might encounter like heights and enclosed spaces.
The manhole and tight underground tunnel allow for practice navigate such passages during rescues, and force trainees to face any fears they have of slithering through the enclosed space. Another place they can work on any fears of confined spaces is the donated water treatment tank.
Next to this area of the training center is a deep but thin open trench build to practice cave-in rescues.
Also on hand is a grave-yard of mangled junk vehicles which bear the scars of much practice with the jaws of life. The vehicles are donated by individuals or groups to allow trainees the opportunity to gain much-needed practice in rescuing people who may be trapped in various types of vehicles.
“I’m sure we’ll add something in the undeveloped space in maybe five years,” Schlosser said.
When asked about what future additions might be beneficial at the ever-expanding training facility, which is used by the approximately 50 members of the LFD as well as other firefighters across the county and state, Schlosser said, “if I had to pick something, it would be a flashover chamber.”
The fire department currently sends it’s members to Bowling Green to practice in such a chamber. Schlosser explained that trainees will sit in one side of the room while a fire burns at the other side. At a certain point, called ‘flashover,’ which occurs during house fires, the fire expands quickly and dramatically to cover the entirety of the room.
The heat during such an event is so intense, Schlosser said, that if one of the firefighters simply touched the others’ protective jacket, it would melt into his skin.
“It’s so intense you almost can’t help but panic,” he said.
All of these training scenarios help to create an excellent, well-prepared fire department. Schlosser said, “If I was ever in a car wreck or got hurt, I’d want these guys to take care of me.”