Firefighters brush up on skills
They hone techniques they need to escape from a burning building.


By EARLE KIMEL



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VENICE -- Wearing visors covered with aluminum foil to block their vision, Venice firefighters Dru Miller, Brandon Folkers, and Lt. Tony Grisanti crawled through a room at the old Grace United Methodist Church preschool Tuesday afternoon, reaching with their left hands for a wall or doorway -- something.

Their mission: search the room they entered for survivors, then carve an escape hole into a wall, all without being able to see.

The exercise was part of a three-day survival-skills training, concluding today, that's designed to give firefighters an opportunity to hone techniques they need to escape from a burning building.

The training is unusual, Assistant Fire Chief John Reed said, because firefighters, carefully trained to save others, are concentrating on ways to save themselves.

Each of the 36 firefighters who regularly answer emergency calls were scheduled to go through the training.

Sight deprivation is key to the exercise, Venice Fire Chief Mike Johnson said, partly because it fosters teamwork among the crews.

"It's also very realistic," Miller said.

"If you've got a structure that's fully charged with smoke, you see nothing," he said, while cooling off after breaking through the wall.

"It's worse than that," firefighter Steve Roberts said of smoky conditions in a real fire. "It's worse than being blacked out.

"You can see stuff up to here," he continued, holding his left hand less than 6 inches from his face.

With vision blocked, the firemen navigated through a room filled with simulated dangers such as loose electrical and air conditioning ducts that could entangle their breathing gear.

Finally, they practiced breathing exercises to discover how long they could breathe with only 500 pounds of air left in their tank.

While working at fighting a fire, that's a five-minute air supply, Reed said. But when a firefighter stays still and practices controlled breathing techniques, the air could last almost an hour -- a feat previously accomplished by Roberts.

Venice firefighters must get at least 15 hours of training per month, Assistant Chief John Reed said.

In actuality they get almost twice that, with the entire group averaging about 1,000 training hours a month, Reed said.

The old preschool was offered to the city as a training ground because it's scheduled to be demolished Thursday. The land, which is on church grounds at the intersection of Field Avenue and Davis Street, will be used as a parking lot.