MONT VERNON — Though the primary job of firefighters is to put out fires, in small towns where fire calls are few and far between, fire departments sometimes have to start fires to keep their members ready for when the real call comes in.
On Saturday, an old, uninhabitable cottage behind the Mont Vernon Inn became a training ground for members of the volunteer fire departments from Mont Vernon and New Boston. Led by Mont Vernon Chief Jay Wilson and New Boston Deputy Chief Rodney Towne, a series of fires were set inside the building and extinguished by firefighters as part of the training exercises.
To share with readers a sense of what firefighters face when they enter a burning building, I was invited to observe the training exercises from inside the building. On Friday, Deputy Chief Sean Mamone of Mont Vernon outfitted me with a $10,000 wardrobe including protective clothing, heavy rubber boots, a helmet and an air pack and mask that would afford me 45 minutes of breathing time inside the smoke-filled edifice.
To get used to wearing the gear, Mamone had me walk up and down a flight of stairs, and take a lap around the fire department; the bulk of the clothing and the weight of the air tank and boots slowed me down considerably. I tried to imagine running up three or four flights of stairs as firefighters dragging heavy hoses or carrying equipment and knew that I wasn't up to the challenge in spite of my regular visits to the gym.
On Saturday morning, I met Mamone at the Mont Vernon Inn, a historic building on Main Street that owner Rolf Biggers has been converting into high-end condominiums. The cottage behind the inn wasn't able to be salvaged for the project, so Biggers let the fire department at it.Firefighter Karen Lindquist, who was tasked with keeping track of the teams going in and out of the building, said the department spent three weeks preparing the cottage for the live burn, taking out materials, building walls and knocking out windows. During that prep time, the department also used the empty building to train for specific missions including how to rescue a firefighter who had been injured. To protect the building next door, a sheetrock firewall was erected between the two properties.
Just after 9 a.m., the first of nearly a dozen fires was set in the building, designed to create a real-life scenario and give members of the Mont Vernon and New Boston departments a chance to practice their skills in properly venting a fire, handling the hoses and other equipment, and learning how to predict how a fire is going to behave under different circumstances.
"If you watch how the smoke is coming out of the roof, you can see where the fire is going inside," said Corey Morin, a second-generation firefighter from Hudson who came out to photograph the training.
Inside the building, as pallets and hay were ignited with a torch, the rooms quickly filled with smoke that created a thick, roiling bank like the clouds of a storm front moving across New Hampshire in August. The higher the fire rose, the lower that bank of smoke descended. Firefighters went down on their knees to stay under the smoke so that they could maintain visibility. Once the smoke took over the room, the firefighters were walking blind, guided only by their training, their leaders, and by the light from the fire itself.
Breaking through boarded up windows, the firefighters drove the smoke out of the building using the force created by the water from their hoses. They attacked the fire inside the walls and drenched the fire until it gave up.
And as one team took the lead in fighting the fire, another team sat back, hoses ready, prepared to jump in if something got out of control.
Being a firefighter requires a lot of trust. The men and women have to trust their equipment — if an air pack stops working while they're in a smoke-filled building, it could cost them their lives. They have to trust themselves and know that they've taken every precaution against injury, from tightening the straps on their helmets to testing and maintaining their equipment. And they have to trust each other because no firefighter goes into a burning building alone.
Beside them is someone who may save their lives, or whose life they might have to save, if things go bad.When the noon whistle blew on the fire station, the grand finale of burning the old cottage to the ground began. With Biggers and his friends watching safely from the back porch of the inn, and the firefighters standing by with hoses to keep things cool, the cottage was consumed.