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Fiery lessons learned

April 07, 2003|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

Like the wizard in the movie "The Wizard of Oz," Jeff Simpkins stepped inside a small control room to deliver his fiery effects at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Sunday morning.

He hit a few commands from a computer and a huge mat outside his control room turned into a raging blaze meant to simulate a jet fuel fire.

Firefighters wearing silver fire suits approached the fire, taking wide swaths at it with a water hose.

Simpkins created different scenarios, such as fire in a mock airplane fuselage. A fire also started in a wheel well on the fuselage, and a few loud bangs were heard, which simulated the tires exploding under the heat of the blaze.

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"Fire in the hole. Fire in the hole," Simpkins yelled to the firefighters outside as he started one of the fires.

Fire training at the airport went high-tech Sunday when local firefighters sharpened their skills with the new $1.3 million training apparatus.

One of only three such pieces of equipment in the country, the aircraft rescue fire-fighting simulator can be transported to airports and air bases, which saves firefighters from having to travel to other states for such training, Simpkins said.

Funded mostly through the Federal Aviation Administration, the simulator was brought to the local airport for the first time last week to offer training to local firefighters, Simpkins said.

On Sunday, firefighters with the 167th Airlift Wing's fire department trained on the simulator. Operated by the West Virginia University Fire Service Extension, the simulator will be kept at the airport this week to allow other fire departments in the Tri-State area to be trained on fighting aircraft fires, Simpkins said.

Except for the crash of one of the base's C-130 cargo planes near Berkeley Springs, W.Va., more than 10 years ago, there only have been a few light aircraft crashes in the area over the years, said Col. Jesse Thomas, commander of the 167th Airlift Wing, who stopped by Sunday to view some of the training.

Despite the fact there only have been a few plane crashes here, it is important for local firefighters to have the training because Martinsburg is under the flight path of planes coming and going from Washington Dulles International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Simpkins said.

The plane fuselage used in Sunday's training has passenger seats inside and a cockpit with controls that firefighters use to simulate the shutting down of the plane's engines after it is lit on fire.

The fire is created by propane fuel that is piped to the fuselage.

There are several advantages to using the controlled environment. First, if the fire needs to be put out, Simpkins can extinguish it with the push of a button.

Second, bringing the simulator to an airport or a military base allows firefighters to test their fire-fighting trucks, said Simpkins, adding that defects have been found in equipment during the training sessions.

"It's better to happen in training. It's well worth the money," said Simpkins, adding that it will cost the local Air National Guard base roughly $3,000 for training this week.

Simpkins said the 167th Airlift Wing firefighters performed well Sunday, putting out the simulated jet fuel fire in about one minute, 22 seconds in one of the exercises and putting out a fire in the fuselage in about one minute.

Firefighters have to make their way through the fuselage in heavy smoke and extremely high temperatures.

Bruce Chrisman, a tech sergeant with the department, said the fires were realistic.

"It's the closest you're going to get without having one go down," said Chrisman, who also is deputy chief of the South Berkeley Volunteer Fire Co.

Chrisman said South Berkeley Volunteer Fire Co. has a "crash truck" loaded with dry chemicals, which can be used to fight plane fires. If there was a plane crash in southern Berkeley County, the volunteer fire department could get support from the 167th Airlift Wing, Chrisman said.

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