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New ‘Fire Lab’ helps train Bethel firefighters to respond to blazes

There are shipping containers stacked all over Bethel, but the three stacked containers on a lot next to Bethel’s dog pound and the city's sewage lagoon aren’t like any others.

They’re meant to be set on fire.

It’s a live fire tower, the first of its kind on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

I recently joined six men going through training in this new facility. Some are volunteer firefighters. The remainder are full-time staff, including the Bethel Fire Chief, but he’s not in charge of this training. Instead, two lifelong firefighters have traveled here to train and certify Bethel's crew on how to run this system safely.

From left to right: City of Twin Falls Fire Captain Josh Kliegl, Drager Systems contractor and retired Fire Captain Jeremy Hurst, Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee.
Francisco Martínezcuello
From left to right: City of Twin Falls Fire Captain Josh Kliegl, Drager Systems contractor and retired Fire Captain Jeremy Hurst, Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee.

One of them is 20-year veteran Fire Captain Josh Kliegl, who currently works for the City of Twin Falls Fire Department in Idaho and is a contractor for Drager Fire Systems. Drager is the Swedish company that built the live fire system.

“We actually go start a fire in a box, and it's a teachable environment so both new and old fire firefighters can learn in a safe environment,” Kliegl said.

This is important to Kliegl because it provides a safe and controlled environment for firefighters to learn in: a ‘Fire Lab.’

“Firemen today don't have that environment. They don't get houses like we used to. So this gives [the firefighters] a place where they can go every day and do the same training. It can make it the same every time or we can change it up to teach whoever we need to,” Kliegl said.

Before we can go inside and get a glimpse of what one can expect during a response to a structure fire, we have to suit up in what’s known as turnout gear.

Francisco Martínezcuello was allowed to borrow Janesville 'turnout gear' from Bethel Fire Department. The turnout coat and pants have three layers. The innermost layer is called the "thermal layer", which protects firefighters from heat. The middle layer is called the "vapor barrier", which protects firefighters from steam and particulates. The outermost layer is called the "shell", which is made of PBI/Nomex material and protects firefighters from cuts/abrasions.
Bethel Fire Department
Bethel Fire Department lent KYUK News Reporter Francisco Martínezcuello, Janesville 'turnout gear'. The turnout coat and pants have three layers: thermal, vapor barrier, shell.

The gear consists of three layers. The innermost, a thermal layer, protects from the heat. The middle layer is a vapor barrier that protects from the steam and particulate matter. And the last layer is called a shell, which is heat and fire-resistant.

The turnout gear is designed to keep us safe from flames up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as 30 seconds.

We put on thick gloves, boots, and helmets. And finally, the other firefighters helped attach my heavy air tank. It’s hard to see or hear anything except my own breathing and the incessant beeping of a Personal Accountability Safety System (PASS) Alarm. It goes off whenever a firefighter doesn't move for 30 seconds. If a firefighter falls through a floor and becomes incapacitated, for example, the alarm will sound and will serve as a beacon for rescuers.

Then we climb up the steel railing into the shipping containers.

There are no lights inside. That’s on purpose. It’s supposed to be dark, said Bethel Fire Chief Daron Solesbee.

“It puts firefighters in difficult positions where they have to start using their mind. How am I going to get this person out?” Solesbee said.

This facility is designed to be used for Class A fires, which means ordinary combustible materials like cloth, paper, or wood. Bethel firefighters used a chainsaw to cut up wooden pallets, put the pieces inside steel drums, and set them on fire during the exercise.

Once the fire is lit, it's like a pressure cooker inside the containers. My facemask was covered in soot so the only sense left was sound, but the cacophony of sounds from the wood burning, radioed commands, occasional water spurts, and beeps bouncing around inside a smoky solid steel container made hearing difficult.

It’s a demanding work environment.

“This represents about 20% of modern homes' fuel loads. So it keeps it safe,” said Jeremy Hurst, a retired fire captain from St. George Fire Department in Louisiana and a subcontractor for Drager. “Nobody's getting hurt. We're not damaging our equipment. We're not damaging the building. This building lasts as long as they want it to if they keep up with minor maintenance on it, but they get to preview into a safe environment of what they're going to see in the wild.”

Hurst also says that homes are built differently than older homes. The average response time for a fire is four to six minutes, but that can be too late for some fires because of what is called flashover, a rapid fire-progression event in which everything in the room is consumed by fire.

“When you're in that situation it's non-survivable. So these buildings, what it does is it allows the firefighters to learn early warning signs and recognize the events that take place before flashover occurs so they can react to it. And that's what we're showing here,” Hurst said.

These firefighters in the training facility today are not learning basic firefighting. Instead, once inside, they learn how to become burning room managers in order to teach others.

“We are trying to teach them this system because it is one of the better fire training systems. Because you can consistently repeat all the processes over and over. And with those results, you're getting a better product of fire instruction. And so that's what we're teaching them inside this building: all the little nuances that go on with it,” said Hurst.

This training facility is a point of pride for Bethel’s Fire Department. And Solesbee believes that it will help recruit more personnel and establish a regional firefighting training center to strengthen departments across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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