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Practice makes perfect for area firefighters

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MUSCATINE, Iowa - Where there's smoke, there's fire - even if the smoke is fake.

There was plenty of fake smoke and real fire in Conesville Wednesday afternoon as members of the Louisa-Muscatine Firefighter Training Association activated their brand new advanced fire training simulator for the first time.

The 53-foot by 9-foot trailer was custom built by Fireblast 451 of Corona, Calif. Weighing nearly 48,000 pounds, the trailer arrived in Conesville on March 23. It can be used to simulate a number of firefighting scenarios.

The trailer cost $335,000. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided a $260,000 grant, and the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust provided $15,000. The remaining $60,000 came from the 18 fire departments in Louisa and Muscatine counties that will use the trailer. It will be based in Conesville, but will be on the move throughout the two-county area.

The trailer is one of only two in Iowa. The other is provided by the state's Fire Service Training Bureau, but there's a two-year waiting list to use it. It was last in Muscatine in August 2008, which prompted area fire departments to put their heads together and get one of their own.

Nine firefighters from various departments in the two counties trained Wednesday to become fire control officers, which means they will be qualified to use the unit to train other firefighters.

"All these walls are moveable," said Andy White, who is a full-time firefighter in Muscatine and a volunteer firefighter in Conesville. "You can make three rooms, two rooms, move the hallway, make a mobile home," he said, describing training situations that can be set up for firefighters.

Giant propane burners provide flames that roll up the walls and along the ceiling. "That's pretty real looking, right there," White said, as he and others watched flames advance along the ceiling.

Smoke is introduced in the trailer as well, but it's not real smoke, although it smells like smoke and stings the eyes. White explained it's actually a non-toxic vapor. "If a firefighter panics and takes his mask off, he won't be impaired by real smoke," White said.

It all adds up to a training session with rolling flames, blinding and choking smoke, and heat - extreme heat.

"When you see that in real life, that's really hot," said White.

In addition to facing interior fire situations, firefighters can also go on the trailer's roof and practice opening vent holes.

John Lapsansky is a national sales representative for Fireblast 451. He arrived from California Tuesday night to conduct the training session.

Lapsansky retired from firefighting after serving 30 years in the Seattle area. He now delivers around two trailers a month nationwide and provides training.

The training is especially valuable for firefighters in smaller departments, Lapsansky said.

"They don't get to see fire, put water on fire, see how it reacts," he said. He added that because firefighters can train in their own communities instead of traveling elsewhere, firefighters are available to answer any real calls that might come in during the training.

Lapsansky says it costs $10-$20 per day per firefighter for fuel and consumables to operate the trailer. He calls that "pretty cheap training."

Grandview Fire Chief Mitch Schweitzer was one of the trainees. He said the trailer fills a need because it provides valuable hands-on training for volunteer firefighters.

"Instructors can evaluate how we're doing - where the problems are and how to correct them," he said. "I think the best thing is we get to work with the other departments."


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