:“Mayday, mayday,” crackled the words over the radio.
To fellow firefighters, the distress call evokes images of being trapped in a burning building. It is also a plea to save one of their own, which sets hearts pounding and the adrenaline flowing.
But how can firefighters find a downed comrade in a building filled with smoke?
Warwick firefighters have been practicing how to do just that for the past month, and thanks to the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC), they’ve been able to experience doing it in a three-story apartment building. It’s all part of Rapid Intervention Training, or RIT.
On Saturday, Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong took the training a step further. He invited Mayor Scott Avedisian and the City Council to step into the shoes – well, boots – of firefighters and see for themselves what it was like.
Actually, there wasn’t much seeing as the smoke machines were working overtime at one of the back units of the Four Seasons Apartments off Warwick Avenue. The two, 12-unit buildings are within the airport’s high noise contour and have been acquired by RIAC. They are to be demolished next month. But meanwhile, under an arrangement with the city, they are being used for firefighter training.
“This is something that taxes our skills,” said Lt. Jason Erban.
The apartment building offers a “unique opportunity,” said Assistant Fire Chief James McLaughlin.
Single-family homes are more frequently used for training, but rarely do apartment buildings become available. And with a number of apartment complexes in Warwick, the experience gained at Four Seasons could be invaluable, a real lifesaver not only for tenants, but also firefighters trapped in a burning building.
But do elected officials also want the experience of being in a smoke-filled apartment complex?
It wasn’t exactly what Ward 1 Councilman Steve Colantuono was planning on when he showed up holding 15-month-old Cody in his arms. Cody was intrigued by just about everything from the fire trucks to the helmets, hose and orange cones marking a hole in front of the complex. As soon as Colantuono put Cody down, he was off, weaving between firefighters loaded down by Scott Air Packs and heavy jackets.
“I’ll watch him,” volunteered Chief Armstrong.
Colantuono was game, although he protested that without his prescription sunglasses he wouldn’t see a thing. The glasses had to come off in order to fit on a facemask.
“The building is full of smoke. You’re not going to see anything anyway,” replied Lt. Marcel Fontenault.
Colantuono slipped on the mask and was shown how to use the air regulator. The rest of the crew assembled, ready to dash into the building in response to the mayday call.
Funding for the RIT training and equipment has come from a $730,000 assistance to firefighters grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Equipment purchased with grant funds includes five thermal imaging cameras that enable firefighters to find people in a burning building as well as Pak-Trackers. The trackers are designed to locate downed firefighters through a radio signal, which is activated by the firefighter. The hand-held device emits a beeping that gets more frequent the closer it is to the victim. It also has a series of flashing lights that change from red to yellow to green the closer it is to the subject.
Since the training started at Four Seasons, Erban said 200 firefighters have participated in sessions that are being run six days a week.
On Saturday, firefighters rapidly located a dummy dressed as a firefighter. They rigged the dummy, which weighed close to 250 pounds, with a harness. Then, using a rope system designed by Warwick Firefighter Scott Jensen, state coordinator for technical rescue, they lowered the dummy to the ground from a second-story window. The system is designed to avert having to drag the downed firefighter back through a burning building.
Colantuono and the crew chose to come out the way they went in.
It was a relief to Colantuono, who was dripping by the time he got off his helmet and mask.
Surprisingly, he was OK without his glasses, but he said he felt lost without knowing the codes firefighters used over their radios during the exercise.
There was no need to decipher Cody’s reaction.
With arms outstretched he was ready for Colantuono to hold him, even if he was still clomping around in boots and a heavy jacket and looked like a firefighter.