Volunteers from eight area fire departments participated in a live fire training exercise in Kalida on Sunday - Putnam Sentinel
Volunteers from eight area fire departments participated in a live fire training exercise in Kalida on Sunday.

KALIDA — It takes a special kind of person to risk life and limb in the service of others, to put aside thoughts of loved ones, of self, and with intent and purpose rush into harm’s way. In Kalida on Sunday, over 100 such men and women gathered for a live fire training exercise.

Earlier this year, the Village of Kalida purchased a house from the estate of a resident with the intent to demolish the structure, making way for a nature path connecting the village’s two main parks. Recognizing the opportunity, Kalida Fire Chief Dale Schulte approached the village and requested use of the building for training, a request village council members ultimately granted. With that approval in hand, Schulte then solicited the aid of firefighting instructors from Apollo Career Center and plans were laid for the training.

As hosts of the training, the Kalida Volunteer Fire Department invited fire departments from throughout the area to participate. From in-county, members of the Columbus Grove, Continental, Fort Jennings, Miller City, Ottawa and Ottoville Fire Departments attended, along with support from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office and a scant handful of Putnam County EMTs accepted. Also on hand were members of the Findlay Fire Department, testing out a new helmet design — equipment that looked like a cross between a motorcycle helmet and Darth Vader’s mask — and the Findlay Police Department, who arrived with a new drone outfitted with a thermal imaging camera.

At 7:30 a.m., the various fire departments gathered in the vehicle bays of the KVFD, naturally clustering in individual groups according to their departments. KVFD Assistant Chief Ryan Kerner addressed the group, laying out a general timeline for the day and assigning specific group tasks — primarily which rotating department would provide for smoke ventilation and which would minimize damage to the house’s exterior.

And, of course, safety.

Even here, after weeks of planning and preparation by trained professionals, the risks are very real. As veteran firefighter Tom Rampe put it, “There are training exercises that have gone fatally wrong.”

According to the National Fire Prevention Association, 108 firefighters died in training accidents between 2001 and 2010; a staggering 11.3 percent of all on-duty firefighter deaths in those years, excluding the 340 deaths at the World Trade Center in 2001.

“Everybody’s a safety officer,” Kerner told the group. “Accountability will be big today. We’ve got a lot of different departments here. Let’s make sure our guys are accounted for. We’ll have an accountability guy at the door who will make sure everybody has their accountability tags or has some way of being identified. We need to keep our teams together as much as possible. We’ll have an attack team, a back-up team, a rip team, and a ventilation team and then everybody else will be in rehab. You’ll just move up one spot every revolution.”

With the initial briefing out of the way, the group made the short trek to the site.

Situated in a cul-de-sac on Hickory Street, the house is typical of mid-1970s construction: a somewhat boxy split-level with spacious first floor rooms and, following a short flight of steps, a narrow second floor hallway leading to relatively small bedrooms. The house was gutted, with the flooring pulled away and anything of value — cabinets, interior and exterior doors, plumbing fixtures — salvaged for use elsewhere.

Entering through the garage and into the first connecting space, a steel barrel barrel filled with debris served as an impromptu smoke pot. In the bedrooms, stacks of wooden pallets were surrounded by piles of straw.

The intent was never to raze the house to the ground. Instead, each designated room was to be used as often as possible, allowing for maximum training time. To that end, the ceilings were reinforced with a second layer of drywall and the firefighters were instructed to simply douse the fire, keep the ceilings cool without blasting them apart, and exit to make way for the next team of trainees.

At roughly 9 a.m., Kerner ignited a stack of pallets in the house’s southwest bedroom. As smoke billowed from a window screened with a sheet of composite board, the first team of firefighters entered the building.

While most of those present had already responded to real world fires, for two Kalida firefighters in that first group, Kyle Recker and Tyler Kortokrax, their training was purely academic. This was their first experience in close quarters with the elemental nature of fire.

With their fellow firefighters SCBAs (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) chirping around them, the two men shrugged out of their own masks, red-faced and sweating after their first close encounter.

“It’s a lot different than in training,” Recker said. “When you actually get in there with the heat and you can’t see anything, it’s a lot different than sitting in a classroom learning about it. It feels good to get the first one out of the way.”

“You don’t really think about how hot it’s going to be in there until you’re right next to it,” Kortokrax added. “Plus, when it gets hot like that, we have stuff coming off the ceiling. It just starts coming down; the heat just takes everything with it. I figured low visibility, but it was a lot worse than I thought. When I was up next to (the fire), I could only see about three feet in front of me. You could barely see your partner behind you. Very interesting. For the first run, I learned a lot.

At the end of the day, the training went off with barely a hitch.

“Everything went well,” Chief Schulte said. “Nobody got hurt. Everybody went home. That’s the most important thing and we all learned a lot. We refreshed on some old skills and learned some new skills, so things went very well.”

As for that “barely a hitch,” KVFD Assistant Chief Joel Rampe remarked that, as the training was wrapping up and thanks were extended to the instructors, the firefighters turned and discovered the attic of the house in flames.

“We got to do some real firefighting then,” Rampe said.

The members of the Kalida Volunteer Fire Department wish to express their thanks to Glandorf Lumber, Vetter Lumber, Ottoville Lumber, Lowes of Lima, Swartz Contracting, Interior Supply, Brinkman Sanitation and Leipsic Hardware for providing the necessary materials and services that made this training exercise possible.