Drama, excitement and comedy replaced a table with brochures for a unique career-day experience for area middle-schoolers on Wednesday.
Forty kids in Patrick Henry Community College’s Talent Search Program Career Exploration Camp visited the Henry County Public Safety Training Center for a start-to-finish demonstration of a house fire.
They sat under the shade of tents in front of a metal, 5-story, fire-training building. The building was put up in 2004 with funding that included a grant from the Virginia Fire Services Board. “It’s a pretty simple concept but a very high-tech system,” Henry County Assistant Fire Marshal Kiah Cooper said.
A control turns fire and smoke on and off as needed. “As operator I have to continually watch my system,” Cooper said.
This heavily controlled environment allows firefighters to simulate kitchen fires, saving victims from a bedroom, rappelling off a 5-story roof and more.
The participating emergency responders didn’t know what they would be getting into, said Capt. Travis Burnette, one of four captains of operations for Henry County Public Safety. He’s the one who assesses the situation and tells the responders what to expect and how best to work together.
The organizers “haven’t given us a lot of information. We’re kind of in the blind, like we would be with a real call,” Burnette said.
J.R. Powell, the director of the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center, was the first to address the students. He told them the two most important things to do when placing a call to 911: Tell the address, then “take a deep breath, remain calm and answer our questions.”
The 911 center has 26 medically trained, full-time dispatchers who send out 18 agencies and three available air ambulances, he said.
Just then, his talk was interrupted by Hampton Ingram’s throwing a red device through a window of the fire-training building and cackling, “Ah, that’ll fix ya! Ah, ah-ah-ah.”
Ingram, the assistant division chief of training, wore street clothes and a ball cap, unlike his colleagues dressed in uniforms or dark-blue shirts with emblems.
“What’s the number to call 911?” Ingram, still in character, asked Division Chief of Operations Jason Sturm, who had taken over in narrating the scene.
“I believe it’s nine-eleven,” Sturm replied, and the students laughed as Ingram placed the call. Students listened as the dispatcher received the call, then called the stations.
The first to arrive was Burnette, who walked around the building, assessing the situation. “Now comes and ambulance,” Sturm pointed out. “There’s a bunch of players in this.”
A fire truck arrived, and firefighters set up their equipment and approached the building, with Sturm analyzing their moves. Once the fire was out, men went in looking for victims.
Lt. Dillon Phillips explained why the victim (in this case, a dummy) was let down from the second story by a harness and rope outside the house: “It’s the straightest line, quickest to get out,” he said, “and maybe they can’t get out” through the same doorways they had entered, because the situation behind them may be more dangerous.
Those firefighters who remain in the house looking for people, pets, clues and more fire walk around holding onto walls so they don’t get lost, he added.
Fire Marshall Lisa Garrett explained her role: “to investigate the origin and cause of a fire and interview people.”
Ingram’s character, who had been getting in the way of the first responders, was arrested by deputies.
“I don’t chase people down,” Garrett said. “The sheriff’s department chases people down. He’s going to jail because he’s getting in their [firefighters’] way, and he made threats.”
She starts her investigation in an area with low damage and works her way up to high-damage areas, she said. The samples and evidence she collects are sent to a forensics lab in Roanoke.
Once the victim was on a stretcher under the attention of paramedics, the students drew closer and watched with rapt attention. Carter, stepping into his normal role as paramedic, explained how he reset and stimulated the heart with medicine injected through a leg bone.
An air ambulance — a helicopter — would take the victim to a Roanoke hospital for treatment.
There are several designated landing zones around the county, Sturm said. They are fairly level, open spots of land at least 100 by 100 feet, with permission from the landowners to be used by helicopters, although “they can land anywhere,” he said.
Then Henry County Public Safety Director Matt Tatum conducted a mock press conference with reporters from the Bulletin and a television station. He answered their questions about the fire and responding agencies, but he said he could not give information about the origin or the victim’s injuries.
“We have to respect the individual’s privacy,” he told the students.
In cases of natural disasters, such as tornadoes or flooding, “we use the same resources to respond to multiple incidents at a time,” Tatum said.
Afterward, students shared their impressions of the scene.
Jariyah Smith of Martinsville and Mallori Lowe of Axton both said “it was cool” to see how the rescue teams work together quickly to save people.
“I like that they got here quickly and cared about everybody,” said Jariyah, 11. However, the controlled nature of the fire and smoke in the fire-training building had surprised her, she said. “I thought we would see the whole house on fire.”
Mallori, 13, said “when they took the person out the window and how long they have to do CPR and how long it takes to get a pulse” were eye-openers for her.
The experience sparked an interest in possibly volunteering for an EMT department: “They can help people, and maybe save somebody’s life,” she said.
Natevis Toney, 12, of Collinsville said he enjoyed the comedy of Ingram’s character as he was laughing while starting the fire and reacting to the firefighters and, later, “when he got chased by the cop.”
The way “they were so fast on getting the person out and had so many techniques to do” was impressive, Natevis said.
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.