Burn building gathers steam

By Christina Dimeo, Editor

What’s worse than a house catching fire?

A house catching fire on the day that the firefighters are out of town.
Right now, Fluvanna’s volunteer firefighters have to drive themselves and all their equipment out to so-called “burn buildings” in Albemarle or Buckingham when they want to train.

Burn building experience is invaluable for firefighters of all skill levels. But Mike Brent, Fluvanna fire chief, worries about the potential cost.

“It’s always been a concern of mine that when we have these burns, we have seasoned firefighters as instructors, and volunteers with them,” he said. “We’re taking manpower and equipment out of the county. The closer one is an hour away for them to be able to get back if something happens.”

To solve this problem, Fluvanna’s Fire and Rescue Association (FRA) is working hard to create a burn building right here in the county.
“This way, if something happens they can break loose and get there,” Brent said.

There’s another benefit to having a Fluvanna burn building: Fluvanna firefighters get to use it.

Although other counties share their facilities, Fluvanna firefighters receive lower priority – and if another county’s firefighters end up needing their building on a day Fluvanna has scheduled, Fluvanna gets bumped.

So the FRA has set its sights on constructing a burn building on the county-owned land behind the Fluvanna Community Center and Fork Union fire station. If all goes well, Fluvanna volunteers will gain real-life firefighting experience in a safe, contained and local environment.

Burn building features
Although the FRA is spearheading the effort, the county will own the building. Construction will start in August and needs to be finished within a year.
The metal-clad building will have concrete floors, said Ben Powell, project manager. Half of the roof will be an A-frame and the other half will be flat, so that firefighters can practice with both kinds of rooftops.

The building will have two burn rooms: one on the first floor and one on the second floor, and will be equipped with a propane gas furnace. The FRA may even purchase a fog machine that spews non-toxic smoke to obscure vision, Powell said.

The burn building experience “allows firefighters to see flames in those rooms and go in and combat those flames,” Powell said. That involves “breathing apparatus, full turn-out gear, learning to pull hoses, flowing water, learning how to fight the stream to fight the fire, ventilation, and how to vent a building.” They’ll even be able to practice removing victims via rope repelling.

Best of all, it’s safe. “You can hit a switch, turn the gas off, and the fire goes out instantly,” said Wayne Stephens, director of public works.

The so-called “clean flames” don’t tear up the building as badly and are more easily controlled. “You really can’t control the heat as well” with a real fire, said Richie Constantino, Lake Monticello fire chief. “With the propane gas we can adjust the temperature with the flames that we want. If we have probationary or young firefighters with relatively little experience, we can control the flames and smoke they’ll be exposed to. For a veteran firefighter we can add more heat and smoke.”

“And if the firefighter goes down for some reason, you can shut it off,” said Brent. “Within a few seconds, everything’s cooled down.”

Burn buildings aren’t cheap. But the good news is that the county qualified for a nearly half-million dollar grant from the Virginia Department of Fire Programs.

The $480,000 grant covers a significant chunk of the cost: $450,000 is earmarked for construction and $30,000 goes toward engineering services. But that money doesn’t cover anything outside of the building’s footprint, so the county will need to cover the site preparation costs.
Although there is no current estimate as to what the final total will be, Stephens said that Farmville constructed a burn building two years ago for a little under $700,000.

“The county is supportive of doing this,” said Cyndi Toler, purchasing officer. Supervisors “have indicated that they are going to give us some money, but have not given an exact dollar amount. Until we come back with an estimated construction cost they’re not putting anything in stone.”

How to help
Fluvanna residents have an opportunity to get involved and give back to the volunteers who put their lives on the line by helping make their training facility into a reality.

The FRA has launched a buy-a-brick campaign to raise money for the burn building. For $100, $250, or $500, people can purchase bricks with art, writing, or a combination of both. The bricks can contain messages, dedications, tributes, business logos and more, and will be used in the burn building or on the premises, depending on how many bricks are sold.

Companies that donate may receive a brick for free, said Debbie Smith, emergency management coordinator. “If a company donates gravel, materials, or labor, the county would buy a brick for them,” she said.

“The more money that is raised, the more features and amenities we can afford to include in the project,” said Stephens. “We’re trying to lay out [the facility] so that maybe later we can have an entire campus.” Such a campus could include, for example, space for training rescue workers in vehicle extractions or training firefighters in extinguishing car blazes.

To order bricks, visit https://polarengraving.com/fluvannacountyfra. Donations of money should be mailed to Fluvanna County Fire Department, P.O. Box 57, Palmyra, Va., 22963, and should be earmarked “Fluvanna public safety training facility.”

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