WESTMINSTER : Smoking Allowed at This Store

As white smoke poured out of holes they had cut into the roof, Westminster firefighters battled a make-believe blaze on Friday to rehearse tactics that they said would save both lives and property.

In a rare exercise, using a building to be demolished on Monday, the team of 20 firefighters and paramedics took turns chopping and cutting "vent" holes that would slow down a fire and spare the undamaged portion of the building.

Training instructor Craig Campbell said the most important part of the exercise was to teach the correct method outside of the classroom, but in a controlled environment, for safety's sake.

"When we make a mistake, we want to make it here, not during a fire," he said.

During the exercise, a machine filled the building with white smoke. Outside, five-man crews climbed a ladder onto the roof, then walked along the perimeter, cutting small triangular "indicator" holes with a chain saw to determine the location of the simulated fire.

Upon reaching an area where the smoke was thickest, the crew sliced open a 6-by-3-foot section of the roof to vent the fire.

Campbell said venting is crucial because otherwise the building is "like a fireplace if there's not a chimney. All the smoke builds up," raising the temperature and cutting the visibility.

Campbell said temperatures inside can reach 1,200 degrees, but once a vent is created, it falls to a relatively manageable 400 degrees.

During the first crew's debriefing, Campbell told the group that "these were ideal conditions and we still had some screw-ups."

One crewman made a bad cut that could have resulted in his falling into the fire, possibly taking another firefighter with him.

"Unfortunately a lot of things (in firefighting) are discovered as the result of disasters. This is a way we can learn new ways of ventilating without getting anyone killed," Campbell added.

Said Kenny Gabrielson, a 31-year-old paramedic and firefighter: "We just can't do enough of this type of training. You can just chalkboard these things so much."

He said that as a result of the exercises, the teams may adopt a new method of holding onto the chain saw operator to ensure that he does not fall into the fire.

The building at 6699 Westminster Blvd., where the exercise took place, is a former car stereo store which will be leveled for a parking lot that will serve a new 40-acre shopping center.

The owners offered the building to the fire department for the exercise.

Campbell said such exercises are rare. "We feel kind of lucky. It just depends on the availability of buildings," adding that other departments would be "salivating" over a similar opportunity.

Without such training, he said, "you get complacent. You try to go too fast. You get hurt. And it's a dangerous profession to begin with."

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