MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
Smoke filled the rooms of a house the evening of March 26. It pooled in the rafters and leaked out through a hole at the top of the building, choking out the light and hiding the numerous obstacles inside. Three Camp Lejeune firefighters donned their masks and prepared to negotiate the dark gauntlet within, unsure of what to expect.
Fortunately, no one needed rescuing that night. No flames gutted the building. The smoke and darkness were all part of a carefully constructed training facility built by the firefighters of Fire Station Two at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune’s Midway Park. The facility allows firefighters from the various stations around MCB Camp Lejeune to immerse themselves in unique and challenging situations.
“They’re in total darkness and the only thing missing from that environment is heat,” said Captain Eric Baker, the supervisory firefighter and paramedic at Fire Station Two. “The best part about it is that it takes a firefighter and it tells him, ‘If I ever find myself in this situation, this is what I can do.’ It gives him options.”
The structure contains numerous challenges that force the firefighters to become more comfortable with their equipment and confident in their ability to ‘self-rescue’. As they progress through the course, the firefighters have to pass over obstacles, navigate a room of gear-entangling wires, properly report their situation after encountering a structural collapse and successfully pass through a 14-by-16 inch hole
Each team member is forced to remove his self-contained breathing apparatus, pass it through a small opening in the wall and replace his equipment in order to make it through the course. They do it all in near total darkness, roughly 50 pounds of gear limiting their mobility.
The firefighters must resist the urge to remove their masks at all costs. Their labored breathing creates an audible sucking noise as they slide their hands along the walls of the home, searching for a clear path out.
“This is more of a mental challenge,” said Baker. “Yes, there is some physical challenge and you have to be able to do it, but this is more mental training. It’s your brain going, ‘I can get through this.’ If you have any claustrophobia at all, it is going to be revealed here.”
It’s a training facility for firefighters, built by firefighters. The members of Fire Station Two took it upon themselves to build the facility in one of the vacant homes at the Midway Park residential community. Building the course on their own time, the firefighters used waste materials destined for disposal to lay out a custom-built house of hazards.
“We brainstormed here as a fire station and came up with something like a maze for confidence building,” said Baker. “I have a very eager-to-learn crew. They are always looking to better themselves.”
Once word of the training facility spread, members of other fire stations began to come down to train with Fire Station Two, said Lieutenant Robert Thompson III, a driver operator for station two. The firefighters from the other stations don’t know the layout of the courses and just have to endure the unknown.
“During one evolution of the training, we had somebody that said they couldn’t get through (the small exit),” said Thompson. “We had to just slow him down and tell him to stop. Once we slowed him down, he got through it.”
Thompson said the facility allows them to conduct training they cannot do during live burns, where a structure is set on fire for instructional purposes. It’s repeatable and the course can be reorganized to further throw off participants. The ability to reuse the building allowed the team to make additions based on their own experiences.
In the long run, the building will be torn down to make room for further military housing. When that happens, the team at Fire Station Two plans to simply move shop to another house and start again.
Thompson says the team enjoys the training and has even lost track of time, training well into the night. It is a chance to practice their procedures in a way that other training facilities don’t allow.
“You’ve got to incorporate some kind of fun into it,” said Baker. “If you just did the same training that we’re required to constantly do, instead of adding some fun and challenging activities, firefighters will get extremely bored.”