HUNTLEY – Just like in a true emergency, members of the Fox River and Countryside Fire/Rescue District on Friday didn't know what they would encounter when dispatchers called them to a Huntley firefighter training center that throughout the morning posed as single-family homes and commercial buildings such as hotels.
In near darkness clouded with smoke from crackling fires fueled by hay and wooden pallets, they worked in and outside the steel structure alongside firefighters from about nine other agencies to battle the blaze and rescue an unknown number of dummies.
Although the fire was deliberately set for training purposes, Fox River and Countryside Chief Greg Benson said the scenarios were no less dangerous than what the firefighters would encounter in the real world.
"That's real fire in there. That's real smoke," Benson said. "It's as real as we can get."
Such training occurs infrequently, Benson said. For some firefighters, he said, this might be their first time training with real – not simulated – smoke and fire outside the academy.
He said few training facilities exist in the area, which makes the Ruth Family Firefighter Training Center in Huntley that much more valuable. Officials said one of the next closest training centers is in Rockford.
Training in Huntley not only gave Benson's team a chance to practice skills in real fire conditions, he said, but it also gave them an opportunity to train with other departments in Mutual Aid Box Alarm System Division II, including Algonquin-Lake in the Hills, Elgin, Pingree Grove, South Elgin, Hampshire, Carpentersville, East Dundee and West Dundee.
Dispatchers from KaneComm radioed instructions to the units from Kane County Emergency Management's mobile command center, which was stationed on the far end of the training site. There, computer screens gave the dispatchers a bird's eye view of the fire scene – a visual they don't get on the job, officials said.
Once one scenario ended, training instructors prepped for the next. Laminated photos of houses, apartment buildings and hotels reflected the scenario they were attempting to create.
In Friday's second scenario, firefighters worked a two-story house fire that affected the attic. Although the fire trucks and engines lined the nearby road, dispatch staggered their arrival to mimic what would happen in reality.
And, as with a real fire emergency, firefighters waited for one firefighter to conduct a 360-degree survey of the building before entering the structure and proceeding with any necessary actions, such as forcing a door open or cutting metal security bars over windows.
Fire officials who evaluated the training sessions later will give the participating agencies a report listing lessons learned, suggested improvements and what they did well.