Katie Lorenz, a field medic with Austin-Travis County EMS, wades without hesitation into an onslaught of water. It comes up nearly to her waist and quickly overtakes her, the force pushing her down a concrete channel and to the edge of a low-water dam. “Swim! Swim! Get your feet forward!” comes a shout from downstream as Lorenz fights the almost overwhelming current.
Despite the ostensibly harrowing situation, Lorenz doesn’t need any assistance. There’s no flood. She is honing her emergency response skills at Tarrant County College (TCC) in Fort Worth, Texas – and the swift water rescue feature is one of several elements that sets TCC apart as a premier training center for first responders.
The College’s Fire Service Training Center (FSTC) has modest roots. When TCC launched its Fire Academy in 1989, the training site consisted of a single classroom in the TCC Northwest building, a pumper engine donated to the program and a four-story basic fire tower.
“We did a lot of ‘pretend this four-story building is really a house.’ There was a lot of pretending that was detrimental to training,” said Tommy Abercrombie, an alumnus of the TCC Fire Academy, lieutenant with Fort Worth Fire Department and then a part-time coordinator for TCC’s program. “You had this unrealistic, very artificial environment that you mentally established as a fake scenario right off the bat. We just couldn’t simulate anything that was relevant to what was happening when people got out on the job.”
That would change in 2002, when TCC opened the FSTC – a modern, high-tech training center that covers 22 acres and provides extensive real-world experiences to rookie classes as well as veteran firefighters.
The College tasked Abercrombie with researching and designing a game-changing facility.
“The concept for the design was ‘how do we get this facility to be as close as possible to what they will encounter in the real world,’” explained Abercrombie, who went on to earn his doctorate in human environmental science-architectural studies and today owns an international fire training planning and consulting firm. “Realism drove everything we did.”
The key to that realism is the simulated city located on FSTC grounds. The site includes mock streets, residences, an apartment-hotel complex, a café, a store, a high-rise building and more.
“Instead of having just one building that tries to be all buildings, what if we have houses, what if we have commercial occupancies, what if we have an apartment building in there,” recalled Abercrombie. “A lot of what you see out there was one of the first, and now that’s what we do across the country and many people duplicate that.”
Instead of Class A burns, the College outfitted the simulated city with propane and liquid petroleum gas props; a touch of a button starts and stops the fire.
“An instructor can immediately shut the fire down, which makes our training relatively safe,” said Bill Pearson, Fire Academy coordinator and one of 10 full-time faculty staff; the program also employs more than 130 professional firefighters as adjunct instructors. “It’s not as hot as a Class A burn, but it’s safer.”
The College burns about 22,000 gallons of propane each year on three outdoor fire props; 11 indoor props run on natural gas. Smoke is generated by machines burning mineral oil. To extinguish the flames, water is pumped in from nearby Marine Creek Lake. Each rookie class uses up to 250,000 gallons of water; everything that doesn’t evaporate is safely recycled into the lake.
Both new recruits and veteran firefighters sharpen their skills in burn buildings that reach 1,000 degrees, with a safety mechanism that will shut off the fire and vent the building if the temperature hits 600 degrees at the height of five feet. There is a flashover simulator that sprays extra gas to ignite a room, and spring-loaded boards mimic a floor ready to collapse.
“You have to prepare them for chaos,” said Dave Lowe, coordinator of Fire Services. “We’ll run the sirens, have people yelling. It gets intense. They have to learn to keep a level head.”
The site includes multiple train cars, strewn about in derailment scenario that includes a hazardous materials situation. A wrecked plane lies nearby for first responders to practice pulling victims to safety. Props can be used on their own or in tandem for more realistic scenarios.
“You can have one group setting up water supply, one group protecting a building, and if the rail car spill is on fire, now it’s threatening an apartment building, so you have all these crews doing different elements,” Abercrombie noted. “It’s a very complex situation that really taxes coordination skills. We want them to be stressed and taxed in a safe environment and not have the first time they encounter that challenge be out in the real world where there’s no control.”
When it comes time for vehicle extrication training, students have access to a full wrecking yard with dozens of donated vehicles. In addition to spreading and cutting metal, students manually set off airbags, learning how to stay safe from impact while rescuing others.
“The Fire Service Training Center is second to none because of the variety of settings they can put us in,” said Mark Marsh, rookie class captain, while he awaited his turn in the extrication yard. “All of it can be simulated out here, which is excellent training. They do a great job of keeping the scenarios unpredictable.”
A few days after the cadets work in the extrication yard, the group from Austin-Travis County EMS is training on the swift water rescue prop – which pumps 80,000 gallons per minute through a winding river into a reservoir.
“What they’re teaching us here is to use our bodies in a way to sets us up to escape that current,” Lorenz, the field medic, explained. “It’s incredible. I don’t have a whole lot of experience in swimming, so to have this kind of facility where they’re providing us as close to a live scenario as we can get without actually being in the field – that is a serious advantage that we have. They say to practice like you play. We’re able to do that here.”
TCC was one of the first in the nation to build a swift water rescue training prop.
“It changes the dynamic of the training,” said Abercrombie. “For many, many years, most of the training would be sitting in a classroom. But people, just like the average citizen, don’t have any idea the power of that water until they get in a bad situation. What this facility instantly did was create a situation where people fully understand the power of that water and the danger associated with it in an environment that you can flip a switch and turn it off and get somebody out of there at the first sign of danger.”
Past the churning water is a field full of rubble. First responders must tunnel through concrete, steel and other barriers to learn urban search and rescue techniques – a legacy from the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks.
“What you’re seeing there is the dynamic nature of that facility,” said Abercrombie. “There were elements of search and rescue in some of the buildings, but having the large equipment and rubble piles and things like that started taking on a different level of importance in our planning after Sept. 11.”
The FSTC also includes the four-story tower that served as the original training site. Students learn to make their way through a confined space maze on the ground floor and rappel on the sides of the building. Finally, there is a mock firehouse with apparatus bays housing the department’s four vehicles, including a 1999 E-ONE 75-foot Quint donated to the College by Grapevine Fire Department, a 1993 Pierce 75-foot Quint, a 1996 International, and a 2004 International. The College is in the process of constructing Fire Station 2 to better accommodate the four apparatuses.
In addition to the basic Fire Academy, the variety of classes the FSTC is able to offer include Instructor (I, II and III), Fire Officer (I, II and III), Strategy and Tactics, Command and Control, Driver/Pump Operator, Rope Rescue Technician (I and II), Confined Space Technician, Structural Collapse Technician, Trench Rescue Technician, Hazardous Materials Technician, Vehicle Rescue Technician, Swift Water Rescue Technician and Emergency Boat Operator.
The FSTC has gotten the attention of departments far beyond the Fort Worth area. Representatives from Singapore’s Civil Defence Force recently visited to meet with the College’s faculty and staff and tour the FSTC. The delegation used the visit to assist in the design of a new training facility.
“I think they were amazed at the amount of training we do and the emphasis we put on our training,” said Pearson.
Still, the facility is not without a wish list. Faculty identify a Class A burn building that will safely filter smoke and water on site as the ultimate goal in live fire training.
“We’re constantly evaluating our curriculum, facilities and tools to make sure we’re offering the most complete training and most updated techniques,” explained Lowe. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Abercrombie stresses that it is the expertise of TCC faculty and staff and a willingness to adapt that give the facility such high value.
“It has maintained its relevance and ability to be dynamic and grow in a way we hoped it would,” said Abercrombie. “The facility provided a tool to allow that program and those instructors to flourish and really have a huge impact, not just locally but beyond.”
For more information, go to www.tccd.edu