Fire training tower soon to be replaced in Wallingford has withstood 40 years of damage

WALLINGFORD — Acting Fire Chief Richard Heidgerd and Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Alsup refer to the yard behind fire headquarters as a training campus. Though it may look like a storage yard, the training grounds at 75 Masonic Ave. are the heart and soul of the Fire Department.

“We’ve got to have this,” Alsup said.

A fire training tower built four decades ago is the centerpiece of the campus, Heidgerd said. Not every town has a training tower. Many departments in the area must travel to regional training sites in Wolcott or New Haven. Having a tower is an asset to the town, Alsup said, because firefighters train on it almost daily. Other departments may only get the chance to train once or twice annually by traveling to a training site. These training visits also involve overtime and travel costs.

“A lot of towns don’t have these towers, and they very vocally suffer,” Alsup said.

But Wallingford’s tower has seen better days, withstanding live burn training scenarios since it was built in 1974, Heidgerd said.

As a result, the department is seeking funding over the next two fiscal years to build a new tower. The department requested $675,000 to build the tower in the fiscal year 2014-15 budget. In his proposed 2014-15 budget, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr. approved $350,000 for the tower. The remainder of funding would come in next year’s budget, Heidgerd said.

The department was prepared to build the tower if the complete funding was approved in the 2014-15 budget, Alsup said. An extra year is actually a positive, he said, “because it gives us an opportunity to slow down and not go at break neck speed.”

Alsup said the department will “put together a group of training officers to really narrow in on what’s the best value to the department and town.”

Any new structure would be similar to the existing tower, with three levels. While the cost of the tower might seem hefty, Alsup said, the intangible benefit the tower provides is immeasurable.

“It’s the intangible of having very good firefighters in town,” Alsup said. In building a new tower, “we’re investing in people and training.”

The new tower would be expected to last another three or four decades, he added.

When the existing tower was built in 1974, training fires were lit with pallets, wood and hay “anywhere in the building,” Heidgerd said. This was “good for training, but bad for the building.”

A common area for burns was under the stairs of the three-story structure because it created a challenge, he said, but over time the practice created safety risks because concrete and steel can only take so much stress.

To preserve the tower, the members of the department came up with a new strategy 15 years ago. Instead of burning throughout the tower, they designated a protected area in building as the burn room. While not as challenging because firefighters always know where the fire is, “they’re still working on their techniques because heat and smoke travels throughout the whole tower,” Heidgerd said. The burn room is lined with protective tiles, but even those only last a few years before requiring replacement.

Instead of having a single burn room, the new tower would have three designated burn areas. There would still be one large burn area on the first floor. In addition, two smaller “burn cribs” would be installed on the second and third floor. Alsup said that due to safety standards only one burn area can be used at once. Having burn areas on multiple levels would allow firefighters to train for different situations. For example, a burn on the first floor simulates a kitchen fire. On the second floor, a burn can simulate a bedroom fire, and on the third floor a burn can mimic an attic fire.

Training officers are “good at creating scenarios,” Heidgerd said. Drill sessions are held twice daily late in the morning and early afternoon. The tower isn’t used during every drill session, but it does get used about six times per week, Alsup said.

“Everyone gets an opportunity to practice and get very good at what we do,” he said.

Often, the department invites mutual aid partners from Meriden, Durham, North Haven and Cheshire to train on the tower. Police also perform search and rescue exercises in the building.

Besides the tower, there are several other training tools at the campus behind fire headquarters. A local business donates old cars which firefighters use for extrication exercises. There is a 110-foot underground tunnel used to practice search and rescue operations in confined spaces. A simulated roof is used to practice entering buildings. Connected to that structure is a window firefighters use to practice safely jumping out of buildings during an emergency.

What looks like a storage shelter on the property is actually a “confidence room,” Heidgerd said. This room has a network of tight spaces firefighters must crawl through in the dark. This gives them confidence in crawling around in tight spaces with equipment on, he said.

The department even uses a pond just up the street at Masonicare to practice boat and ice rescue. In the future, Heidgerd said, the department will look to build a physical training circuit on the campus as well.

Another addition to the campus is a storage building, for which the mayor budgeted $150,000. Much of the department’s equipment is lying outside due to lack of indoor storage. (203) 317-2224 Twitter: @Andyragz

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