MORRIS — Rockdale firefighter Marc Salazar emerged from the smoke and quickly took off his fire gear and headed for fresh air. Sweat dripped down his face as he took a moment to catch his breath.
“That was cool. I got to see the flash over and I felt the heat. This was a first time experience for me. First I could see flames over my head, then it was black and we could only see smoke,” Salazar said.
Salazar was one of 95 students from 16 fire departments, including Ottawa, Marseilles and Seneca departments, to attend the annual Pow Wow 2018 Chief Shabbona Fire School hosted by Exelon Midwest Fire Training Academy. This tradition has served fire departments in the area since 1971, when it was held on the old Grundy County Fairground site in Mazon. It has been held on the current location outside of Morris for the past 10 years.
Fire school chairman Charlie Boyd said this pow wow was created as a mutual aid organization and has become a training organization. Most of the fire departments in the area during its inception were too small to host their own training opportunities or afford a training school, so this offered different types of classes at a lower cost to the firefighter and department.
Boyd said he tries to find new classes each year to keep up with demands of the job in the area. This year, along with the staples such as basic firemanship and auto extrication, wildland firefighting and storm spotting/lessons learned from local tornadoes were added to the list of classes.
James Sheldon, Coal City Fire Protection District Chief and Chief Shabbona President said the wildland firefighting was not like fires in California. But grassfires can be deadly just the same.
“We have grasslands and wooded areas and fires in those areas can kill you just as fast as a house fire. The wind can shift and you can get caught,” Sheldon said.
The firefighters learned how to set backfires and build fire breaks-techniques firefighters would not normally have to perform at a typical fire scene.
Weather spotting class was added because this area has witnessed an increase of tornado activity. Sheldon said the departments usually rely on the Emergency Management Agency, but more knowledge proves to be beneficial.
“This gives the firefighters extra training and other opportunities. In this type of job we have to learn something new all of the time because if you become stale, you can get hurt or killed,” Sheldon said.
The basic firemanship class offered hands-on experience in a tower as well as a flash over simulator. Scott Steffes, instructor of Hazmat training for Exelon and retired Lisbon-Seward firefighter, said in the simulator, a fire box was filled with pine wood, particle board and pallets and then set on fire, as the firefighters crouched on their knees in the lower part of a simulator.
“The firefighters are on their knees and the fire goes over their head; it teaches them about fire behavior and also about smoke behavior on the outside,” Steffes said.
In the concrete burn tower, each room was set up differently with obstacles or mannequins the firefighters had to rescue. Some obstacles included forcible entry props, stairwells, electrical fires and a maze floor. Steffes said the instructors change the rooms out each year in order to present new challenges.
There was also a confined space simulator which offered side and roof hatches for horizontal and vertical rescues, ladders, a 24-inch tube to “make this as life like as we can,” Steffes said.
“This event is big, this is something that can make you decide if this job is for you or not-it’s hard work and you have to be in it 100 percent,” Salazar said. “I wanted to get educated and feel the fire. I want to make this my job full time to support my family.”
The last event was the extrication site where firefighters learned the best techniques to safely rescue someone from a vehicle. Experts guided the firefighters as they used equipment to lift a vehicle, take off doors and roofs and break glass carefully. They also learned to approach a vehicle from the front, not the back so the person inside, who may be injured, does not naturally move to look behind them and how to safely deal disconnect the car battery before touching the vehicle which could deploy air bags; both scenarios could cause further injury to the victim.
During a ceremony, Sheldon awarded Ret. Captain Jerry Kinsella a plaque for his involvement with Chief Shabbona as this year was his last with the organization. Sheldon also thanked Minooka Firefighters Association for the $400 donation through the William Collins and Brad Sprague Fire Science Educational Endowment Fund which was used for the pow wow.