MADISON TWP.-As he watched a building burn on Saturday, West Point volunteer Firefighter Sam Conrad felt 13 years of training and experience churning inside him.
"It's hard not to want to grab that hose and go put it out," said Conrad, 31, of East Liverpool.
But in resisting the urge to save a burning house, Conrad and his fellow firefighters also got a rare, valuable lesson in how to fight a house fire.
Members of the West Point Volunteer Fire Department, including rookie Jeremy Austin (in suspenders) and 36-year Chief Wayne Chamberlain (in white helmet), watch Saturday as the former Junior ROTC building burns down during a training exercise authorized by Beaver Local Schools. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
The building, the old Junior ROTC office for Beaver Local Schools, burned to the ground, but firefighters walked away with skills that will help them on their next fire call, said Chief Wayne Chamberlain of the West Point Volunteer Fire Department.
"We don't get opportunities like this very often, so when we do, we take advantage of it," Chamberlain said.
The West Point and Glenmoor Volunteer Fire departments participated in the controlled burn exercise with the blessing of the Beaver Local School District, which had scheduled the Junior ROTC building for demolition.
Giving the building to local fire departments for a training exercise was more efficient for the school district than hiring a contractor to tear it down, Superintendent Kent Polen said.
On Saturday, 13 firefighters from West Point and 11 from Glenmoor gathered at 9 a.m. for the start of the training exercise. They went in two at a time, accompanied by two more-experienced officers, and practiced on smaller, controlled fires in individual rooms.
Chamberlain, a certified state fire instructor, said the fires were started with a combination of wood, straw, gasoline and kerosene. "This is the best training you can get because it's just like the real thing," he said.
Conrad, who has been with the West Point department since 2000 and who works as a security officer at Pittsburgh International Airport, said he found the training beneficial. "You definitely get the training on heat and on doing entry on house fires," he said. "You learn a lot about how fire goes through a house."
The newest firefighter at the exercise was Jeremy Austin, 24, of Lisbon, who just joined the West Point department on Wednesday. Austin is so new that Chamberlain, chief since 1977, called him Jason.
Austin said it's been a dream of his since he was a boy to be a firefighter. Saturday found him working as backup on a hose in a hot room. "It was stressful at first, but then you get used to it," he said.
By noon, the firefighters had the house prepped for full ignition. The interior reeked of kerosene and gasoline.
At Chamberlain's signal, 2nd Lt. Doug Fonner cautiously approached the house and tossed a flare inside. Within seconds, the building where Junior ROTC students once took classes was engulfed in flames.
Continuing his teaching as the building burned, Chamberlain said the white smoke in the early stages of the fire was a sign of incomplete combustion, when flames come in contact with water and generate steam. Later, the smoke turned black as the fire got hotter.
"That's complete combustion," he explained.
The radiant heat from the fire was so intense, reaching 1,100 degrees, that it ignited the basketball hoop next to the garage. "That's hot," Fonner said as he walked by.
Firefighters and the assembled onlookers and family members had to back up as the flames engulfed the garage and broke through the roof. In one surreal moment, Fonner turned away from the fire and sprayed down a pumper truck with a fire hose.
By 12:45 p.m., the house was mostly gone and firefighters packed up their equipment to go home.
Amy Fraser, of Calcutta, whose son, John, operated a thermal imaging camera during the exercise, watched the conflagration from the Beaver Local Middle School parking lot and said she was sad to see the building go. Both of her sons-John and Seth-went through ROTC training while students at Beaver Local High School.
"I understand-this is progress. They chose the best way to get rid of it," she said. "It served its purpose, so now it's serving another purpose-the training of these young men and women."