by Danielle Forsyth
"All the other classes firefighters go through teaches them how to save others," instructor Rich Silvaroli explains. "This class teaches how to save themselves."
Around 15 volunteer firefighters from eight different fire companies gathered last Saturday to learn the skills in order to get out alive. The class was not, however, stationed at a regular fire-training center. Through the donation of Victor Sirianni, a retired volunteer fireman, himself, the class was held in his old home of 20 years on Lake Road in Youngstown. There, the volunteers went through a rigorous program with the benefit of practicing in a real home. Amidst the stifling August temperatures and scrupulous training, it was evident that the homeowners, instructors and students were enjoying the afternoon, sharing stories and joking amongst themselves.
The first of the training tasks that students perform is called a "wall breach." In this scenario, the firefighter is trapped in a closed burning room and has very little time remaining. The trainee is required to fashion a hole large enough to safely crawl through and get to safety. Student Sam Leffler from Lewiston Fire Co. No. 1 began swinging an axe against the wall with full gear, including his large SCBA, or self-contained breathing apparatus.
Instructor Silvaroli spoke in between the huge blows to the wall. "As you can see (thwack), this is a pretty unorthodox class," he says. (thwack) "It is training them to do whatever is necessary (thwack) to get out alive."
Leffler manages to tear through two thick layers of drywall and inner wooden support beams to "escape" into the next room safely.
"That wall was pretty tough," says Silvaroli as Leffler catches his breath on an old armchair still in the house. "That is a great benefit of practicing in a real home: You never know what is between those walls and you need to be prepared for anything."
The next task for the students, called a "controlled roll-out," involves rappelling out of the home's second-story attic window.
"We're going to make little rappelling monkeys out of you," another instructor jokes.
One by one, the students, still in full gear, fashion themselves a rope that acts as their makeshift harness and rappelling tool needed to get out in a life-or-death situation. With three other volunteers ready with the safety belay, the students roll out of the window and make their way down the side of the home.
Some students at the class have already trained in special gorge rescues. They make the rappelling maneuver look graceful and appear as though they are "simply" rappelling out of a two-story building compared to the jagged, unforgiving force of Mother Nature that is the Niagara Gorge. Others are not as graceful looking, but get the job done.
One eager student, launching himself out the window rather forcefully, ends up bumping against the wall a few times before eventually catching his footing. "Hey, if I'm gonna bail out, I'm bailing out!" he says, which garners a few good laughs from the others.
Additional exercises in the course include a ladder bailout, in which students climb out of the window head first down a ladder and, using a technical maneuver, flip themselves around to continue the climb down feet first. Another is the rapid room search, where students are blindfolded and told to feel their way around a room and identify the various objects in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
Homeowner Sirianni recalls some of his memories on duty. "You are running into a burning building while everyone else is running out. You sometimes ask yourself, ‘What am I doing?' This class helps you overcome some of those thoughts to get the job done."
The firefighter survival training class is a 12-hour course that runs for two days. The prerequisite for the class is the Firefighter Level I certification.
To show support for the volunteers, join them for the Youngstown Volunteer Fire Co. annual open house on Oct. 9 to cap-off the end of Fire Prevention Week. There will be fire extinguisher demonstrations, smoke detector giveaways, and kids activities. For more information, call 745-3324.