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Through the Fire 
BARNSTABLE, Mass – A Soldier battles a “basement fire” during the 179th and 180th Engineer Detachment (Firefighters) annual structural fire burns, at the Barnstable Fire Academy, here, April 8. The units spent the day reviewing search and rescue, fire suppression and ventilation, which are important skills that can be utilized in real world situations.
Story and Photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Alfred Tripolone III, Massachusetts National Guard Public Affairs 

BARNSTABLE, Mass. - You grope blindly through the darkness, trying in vain not to trip on slippery soot covered stairs.

Just a few seconds earlier you followed a crew of Soldiers into an unfamiliar building.

Upon entering you’re completely disoriented. A moment later as you strain to hear where they went, through the echo of your breathing apparatus, the panic creeps in. You stumble forward, attempting to find them, but failing miserably.

Ahead, you catch a flicker of light at the top of the stairs. You shuffle to the door and open it. As the door swings open everything is ablaze with color.

That’s when you’re ambushed by it, the battering ram of heat. Even through your protective gear the devouring heat takes you aback. 

You hear faint shouts ahead, not panicked but purposeful. Yells stating orders, and alerting others of possible danger, yells communicating how the fire is spreading.

As flames lick the top of the doorway, you duck through. Looking down you see something both breath-taking and petrifying. Your first live burn.

A Soldier, seemingly immune to the effects of the inferno, directs a jet of water toward the base of the conflagration, the roaring of the fire is replaced by an intense hiss as a billow of black smoke buries you in darkness. 

“We are conducting live structural burns,” said Capt. Andy Mason, Officer in Charge, 179th and 180th Engineer Detachment (firefighters). “We’re also going into a flash simulator to learn the basics of fire science, how to fight a fire and everything from setting up the apparatus to putting on the proper protective gear.”

Members of the 179th and 180th Engineer Detachment (firefighters) trained vigorously in real world scenarios to hone their skills at Barnstable Fire Academy, here, April 8.

The firefighters take what begins as a seemingly chaotic fight, quickly down to a one-sided well practiced drill in fire fighting. The training goes over everything from search and rescue to fire suppression and ventilation.

To start the day the firefighters gathered in one of the buildings and were able to reacquaint themselves with their adversary, fire. A controlled fire was set and the firefighters were able to watch its growth patterns and movements.

“Fire behavior is very important to the firefighters,” said Staff Sgt. Dennis Ragazzini, Lead Fire team Chief, 180th Engineer Detachment Firefighters based at Camp Edwards. “It tells them which direction the fire is going, if the fire is going to the extreme and they’re going to have a flash over, or go out to the insipient stage and burn right down.”

Maintaining a keen understanding of how fires burn and consume is the key to fighting and putting it out, said Ragazzini.  

“In all fire scenarios, fire grows due to oxygen, the more oxygen you put into the fire the rougher the fire is going to be and the more intense the fire is going to grow,” said Ragazzini. “When you eliminate the oxygen the fire will die out, without heat, the fire will die out. The more heat the more oxygen, the more fire you get.”

“So, by having the firefighters sit there and look at the different stages of the fire growth it helps them understand why we put it out, what stages we put it out at and the most important thing is their own protection,” said Ragazzini. “They’ll be able to tell if the fire is getting to the point where they’ll have a flash over. In which the whole room will just burst into flames, so they’ll be able to tell if it’s time to leave the building.”

After their fire behavior refresher course, the firefighters broke down into teams to begin the live burning portion of the day.

“Live burn training utilizes live fire to simulate an interior of a house that would be on fire, or a commercial fire,” said Staff Sgt. Robert Rogowski, Lead Fire team Chief, 179th Engineer Detachment (firefighters) “Our crews are going to go in, use a hose line, knock the fire down, ventilate just like we do at a real fire.”

The use of live fire is an essential part of training firefighters for real world circumstances, where knowing how it moves will determine the outcome of the fire.

“This training is extremely important to the detachment and to the firefighters. As with all training, the more realistic the better,” said Rogowski. “The only way to get good at fighting fires is to actually have fires.”

The teams were able to use the Barnstable fire academy’s facilities to perform their yearly live burn training.

“Here we’re able to use a controlled environment such as the burn building,” said Rogowski. “We’re able to light fires in a controlled manner to allow our firefighters to get used to the heat, the limited visibility of the smoke and to actually have the fire in front of them.”

 Fighting a fire is no easy task, it is a tricky foe, and one that is just as likely to hide from view as it is to prominently dance in front of you. There is more to fighting a fire than showing up and spraying it with water.

“I wish the job was really easy like that, to just show up, put the fire out and walk out the door,” said Ragazzini. “But, we could walk into a room that’s fully involved with fire, put the fire out, turn around and keep searching a room… turn (and look) over our shoulder and that room could be fully engulfed again.”

The training these Soldiers go through to prepare them both physically and mentally for situations where many senses are inhibited can be very stressful, but in the end show them what to expect in a real fire situation.

“The effects of a fire inside are limited visibility; it produces toxic smoke which takes away our ability to see. The heat takes away our ability to really sense where we are, because all we’re doing is feeling the heat,” said Rogowski.  “The fire makes a lot of sound, it makes that roaring sound similar to being near a jet engine and it takes away our ability to hear.”

Also, by having masks on so you lose the ability to taste or smell, the only real physical ability you have is the sense of feel. Being in this environment gets you used to being in a real fire setting, said Rogowski.

Live burning scenarios help Soldiers acclimate to using a reduced number of senses in enclosed spaces without panicking.

“It’s definitely scary at first; it’s more of a controlled fear, your first time in, everybody’s a little antsy,” said Rogowski. “But once you get used to working in the environment you kind of put that fear aside and let your training take over.  And being in the environment such as this training facility allows us to get used to working in there, which takes the fear out of it.”

“There’s always that sense of, I could get hurt, I could get in trouble in a situation like this,” Rogowski said.  “But the more training we have, the more we rely on it to get through. The fear is always there but we work through it.

“Our end goal for the training today is to get our fire fighters used to working in a zero visibility environment, used to working with the heat,” said Rogowski. “Getting comfortable working in a dangerous environment so when we have to go out on a real emergency response, a real fire, we’re able to do our job, and we’re able to do it quickly and efficiently.”

Ragazzini said the two fire detachments, the 179th and the 180th out of Massachusetts, are among the best fire detachments in the country. Every year there is a fire chief’s conference somewhere in the country and the units have seen the level of their training versus the level of other units.

Ragazzini said he takes great pride in the teams here.

“All the guys today are doing a great job, this is great training and we’re glad we have the opportunity to be here,” said Rogowski. “And to be able to use a facility like this so close to our station and do our training.”