Plymouth Firefighters Use Their DIY Skills to Construct a Live Burn-training Site

Plymouth fire personnel Timothy Peterson, Jamel Anderson and Steve Marti in front of the self-built fire-training structure.

Long-time Plymouth firefighter Jared Stotts recalls a time when firefighters gained valuable experience with live fires in abandoned homes and properties donated to the city. “Now Plymouth is more developed,” he says. “Houses are much closer to each other.” New laws, he says, make it difficult to conduct live fire practice under these conditions. And there are simply fewer house fires than there used to be, he adds, which is generally good news, of course—unless you’re a novice or even experienced firefighter anxious for the opportunity to practice under realistic conditions.

Assistant fire chief Dave Dreelan agrees. Firefighters train several times a month, and “there’s only so much value in blindfolding guys and sending them into the basement,” he says. Far more useful, Dreelan and Stotts know, would be practice that included real fire, real smoke, poor visibility and heat. The ideal situation would be a training center in Plymouth where firefighters of all experience levels could practice with live fire and true-to-life fire situations.

But “prefabricated training towers can run a couple hundred thousand dollars,” says Stotts, a cost that’s prohibitive for Plymouth and many other fire departments. So Stotts and Dreelan came up with a solution of their own. Thanks to their vision, the help and DIY skills of many on the firefighting roster, and financial support from the Plymouth Crime and Fire Prevention Fund, this year the Plymouth Fire Department finally has a functional fire training structure, now located in back of the Public Works building off 23rd Avenue.

“We bought three shipping containers for a couple of thousand dollars apiece,” Stotts says. Ranging in size from 10- by 40-feet to 20- by 40-feet, the three containers were delivered to a large pole barn on the property of Stotts’s excavation company and farm property. Starting in January 2014, several small groups of firefighters gathered on Friday afternoons and Saturdays to begin the modification of the containers.

Dreelan explains that the idea is not to set the training facility on fire, but to set fires in it. In order to do so safely, metal-studded and fire-bricked areas were constructed inside two containers to restrict the spread of practice fires and to allow proper drainage of water used to extinguish those fires. While the interiors of the containers remain empty, firefighters configured them in a way that walls can be added and removed.

The end result “is like a maze where you can move internal walls,” says Dreelan, perfect for simulating a variety of firefighting and rescue scenarios. The next step was to lift and weld the three containers together into a simulated housing structure. Two containers were stacked up like a building and welded together and the third container was welded to the first two in a simulated hallway.

Many further modifications were completed, by both Plymouth firefighters and outside volunteers, at the Public Works site. The department bought two sets of metal stairways (and the six doors as well) from Bauer Brothers Salvage Home, based in Minneapolis, which specializes in demolition and salvage of building materials, Dreelan says. There’s a long “to-do” list remaining. “The structures haven’t been painted yet,” he says. The firefighters want to add interior and exterior lighting. Eventually, they hope to have props in place—couches and chairs, for example—not to light on fire but to simulate places people might hide in a fire, and to teach firefighters how to conduct a search.

But even without these final additions, the Plymouth Fire Department live-burn fire training site is up and running. Now Plymouth and other area firefighters can train on a structure that simulates house and high-rise fires, and allows for realistic search-and-rescue and confined-space training. The biggest motivator in this whole undertaking, Stotts says, was to give all firefighters valuable, real-life fire training experience. That they did it themselves only adds to the satisfaction.

Fire Awareness and Prevention
October is National Fire Awareness and Prevention Month; here in Plymouth, firefighters will host a number of informational demonstrations and events. Check or our Calendar for details.

Fire Open House
Noon–3 p.m. October 10
Fire Station III 3300 Dunkirk Lane