The house at 205 South Morris St. may no longer be suitable as a residence, but for firefighters, the small frame house is a perfect site for some search and rescue training.
The home was slated for demolition after Landmark Bank purchased the property for a parking lot construction project.
Gainesville Fire Department Division Chief Mike Murphree said shifts of firefighters have been taking turns honing their attack skills inside the empty house.
On Friday morning, crews were concentrating on initial attack operations in a structure fire, he said.
Using artificial smoke from a theater smoke machine, the firefighters practiced entering a smoke-filled building while there’s still a chance of saving a victim inside the structure.
When they arrive at a structure fire, firefighters immediately assess conditions inside the building, he said.
“(We’re simulating what) we call a manageable fire in which someone inside the building has a good chance of being able to survive. We’re trying to hone our skills and become more proficient at our initial attack and search and rescue techniques,” he said.
Murphree noted that during a structure fire, smoke is a killer.
Most fire victims die of smoke inhalation long before their bodies are burned by flames, he said.
“Smoke is full of toxins. Modern building fires (often give off) hydrocarbons from burning plastics,” Murphree said.
The environment inside a burning building quickly turns deadly as carbon monoxide fills the space inside the structure. Once inside the body, carbon monoxide displaces oxygen, suffocating victims, he said.
Heat is also a factor, he added, noting that temperatures inside a burning building often reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more near the ceiling.
Murphree also said it’s important to note that firefighters are often working to control the fire and rescue victims in conditions of zero-visibility.
He said most of the fires his department deals with are blazes inside single family structures of between 1,000 and 1,500 square feet.
“Often these are houses that are still savable once we pull up on the scene,” he said.
Protecting human life is the firefighter’s first priority, he said.
Crews also use thermal imaging cameras to locate victims and help navigate through the thick smoke, he said.
The cameras — similar to night vision technology developed for the military — are expensive.
The device the firefighters were using Friday morning cost between $10,000 and $12,000. The camera was paid for through a grant, Murphree said.
In addition to navigating through unfamiliar buildings, the men have the added burden of heavy hoses and 75 pounds worth of gear including their breathing devices.
Murphree said each firefighter can stay inside a building for only about 10 or 15 minutes before the firefighter’s oxygen supply runs low and he or she has to take a break.
“It depends on the situation and the physical condition of the firefighter,” he said.
It’s difficult to imagine how hard it is to work inside a hot, smoke-filled building. That’s what makes the smoke machine and the empty house such valuable tools for training.
Murphree said crews will likely use the South Morris Street house for about two more weeks.
Since the home is scheduled for demolition, crews can also practice exterior techniques such as wall breaching, ceiling pulling, removing siding to find hidden fires and punching holes in the roof.
“We’re also planning some night training since most fires happen after dark when residents are at home,” he said.
Murphree said being a firefighter requires skills that are difficult to acquire without specialized training. It also forces crews to make some tough decisions when it comes to saving lives and property.
“We have a saying in the fire department. We say we’re willing to risk a lot to save a lot, but we’re willing to risk very little to save very little,” he said.