Fort Sam Houston firefighters partner with community to train, render aid, educate
August 11, 2011
By L.A. Shively
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Sounding like bad guy Darth Vader from the film series “Star Wars,” with mechanical breathing and the clanging of extra air tanks echoing around the stairwell shaft, a team of Fort Sam Houston firefighters labors up 10 flights during an exercise preparing them to fight high-rise fires.
Getting to the top of the Alamo Heights building is only half the battle. Each firefighter carries nearly 75 pounds of gear: the suit, breathing apparatus, and fire-fighting implements. Others on the team might also carry a 75-pound, 150-foot hose or extra tanks of air weighing around 20 pounds apiece.
On the top floor, the team extends the hose line to a high-rise pipe and goes through several scenarios " each firefighter is winded but still capable of fighting a blaze.
“Can you imagine what the physical exertion on the 9/11 firefighters was " just climbing hundreds of flights of stairs before they actually started to work?” asks Assistant Fire Chief John Cupell, Fort Sam Houston Fire & Emergency Services.
“It’s a very strenuous activity, so we need to keep our guys up to par,” said Alamo Heights Fire Department Division Chief Kevin Culak, who coordinated the exercise.
The annual high-rise drill was conducted as part of a mutual-aid agreement Fort Sam Houston has with other fire departments in San Antonio, and Cupell said, his firefighters could be called back to Alamo Heights, or some other area in town that may have tall buildings, at any time.
“The mutual-aid agreement is really paramount because community resources are limited,” Fire Captain Adam Martinez said, adding that many fire departments outside the post rely on volunteers.
The agreement allows the departments to train together and render aid together Martinez explained. He has been a firefighter with Fort Sam Houston for 11 years.
A recent fire in Kirby warranted calls to several San Antonio fire departments including Fort Sam Houston.
Although the two homes involved were completely gutted and the fire was out, one Fort Sam Houston firefighter was tasked, together with two Kirby firefighters, to search inside one of the houses using a thermal imaging camera to identify hot spots.
Thermal imaging helps firefighters pick out the signatures of smoldering areas inside walls and other structures when the main fire has been extinguished. Once discovered, hot spots are quickly exposed and doused.
Martinez said that Fort Sam Houston firefighters respond to calls off post about once a month and occasionally his department will request assistance on post.
High-rise training also includes rappelling drills down a 50-foot, three-story tower on post.
Rappelling is part of the job and the drills prepare the firefighters, who are all emergency medical technicians, for rescuing stranded workers atop multi-story buildings and buildings under construction, among other situations.
“We have low-angle rescue, high angle rescue and confined space. In the event that anybody falls to a level where they can’t be reached by a ladder, or if it’s too steeply graded, we can repel down to them, do medical treatment, patient packaging, and we can raise them back up,” Fire Capt. Lawrence Salinas explains.
Salinas has been a firefighter for 13 years. His experience includes an active-duty stint with the military as an Air Force firefighter.
The newly-constructed tower also provides a first-floor burn room for realistic live-fire training as well as hazardous materials and other types of training.
Fort Sam Houston Fire and Emergency services involves youth with nearly all of their training.
Members of Fire Explorer Post 1876 often repel with firefighters and assist in live fire scenarios.
Fire Explorer Robert Casteneda is gearing up for a trip down the side of the training tower. This is his first experience with rappelling and the teen says he has some trepidation.
“I’m a little scared of heights, but this is a one-in-a-life-time chance,” 17-year-old Casteneda said. He wants to become a firefighter one day. “Just the feeling of saving somebody " I like that.”
Despite his fear, Casteneda lowers himself down with assistance from a firefighter at his side.
Evan Garr is comfortable with the rappelling gear. He has recent experience from a Reserve Officer Training Corps camp, though this is his first day as a Fire Explorer.
Garr’s friend, Chris Lamoureux, is also experiencing his first day as a Fire Explorer rappelling down the tower. The teens are excited about the Fire Explorer program.
“I want to get more involved with this,” Garr said, “to give back to the community.”
Lamoureux said he prefers working with the firefighters, learning adventurous new skills and giving back to the community rather than sitting at home watching TV.
“Today’s a great first day,” Lamoureux said.
Fort Sam Houston firefighters often bring their training into the classrooms on post.
Firefighters discuss fire safety measures at home with the children and they don their suits, helmets and air tanks to encourage children to become familiar with how they look and sound.
“Whenever we put on the (Personal Protective Equipment) and respirator, I convey to the children that we sound funny, like a bad guy, like Darth Vader,” explains Salinas. “Then I’ll let them listen and touch the gear.”
Salinas said he wants children to recognize they are the good guys even if they look and sound like the bad guys in movies.
“We want them to know we are there to help and not be scared or hide under the bed if a fire breaks out.”