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Fire crews tear up house in the name of training

Future demolition will make way for Northwest's first 'made-in-America' home
by: Vern Uyetake From left, Jeremy Langeliers, a Lake Oswego Fire Department paramedic, and Dan Carpenter, lieutenant, work to vertically ventilate a house during a recent training exercise.

The Lake Oswego Fire Department has had two houses to destroy in as many months, part of a recent 'flurry' of donated training opportunities.

Firefighters carved into the most recent donation on Southwest Bonaire Avenue Dec. 1. Battalion Chief David Morris said he's now following up on three additional offers to use homes prior to their demolition in early 2012.

'Quite a few people are getting ready to tear down their houses,' he said. 'It's sort of like 'when it rains, it pours.''

In comparison, over the previous couple of years, the department used just two houses for training. Looking back farther, however, Morris said the recent spate of donations isn't too far from the norm.

'Many times there is a flurry of homes offered at one time because people are preparing for a spring groundbreaking or the economy is shifting and people may be looking to start their developments,' he said.

Property owners planning to demolish buildings can donate their use for firefighter training and receive tax write-offs for the training's value. In return, firefighters have the opportunity to train in the most realistic environment possible.

'We can only put so much into a training scenario in a training tower in a parking lot,' Morris said.

Often, the property owners leave behind some furniture and similar obstacles commonly encountered by crews battling a blaze in a smoke-filled home.

'It benefits us because it's more of a real-life situation,' he said. The drills are usually destructive, he added: 'We're cutting the house apart.'

In firefighter self-rescue drills, for instance, crews must find the most efficient way to get their bodies - including all of their protective clothing and gear - through a 16-inch wall void. This training helps when a firefighter is trapped in an area and can't use a door to escape; instead, they exit via a wall.

That entails kicking out the sheetrock between rooms and then sitting backward into the wall, wedging their air packs into the adjacent room between beams. Then, to squeeze their shoulders through, firefighters do a sort of 'backstroke swimming motion' through the opening, Morris said. Another escape technique is to punch small holes in walls to use as foot and hand holds while climbing toward high windows or attic spaces.

Firefighters also practice cutting holes in roofs and punching through the ceilings below, just as they would to provide 'vertical ventilation' during a real fire, making the indoor environment easier to survive in and reducing hazards to those battling flames inside.

Another drill is the 'double tap 360.' During this exercise, crews attempt to locate a firefighter lost or trapped inside of a building by tapping on outer walls and listening for a response. Once the missing crew member is located, those outside can enter through a window or breach the wall to rescue them.

The fire department doesn't take advantage of every training offer because of scheduling conflicts and construction timelines or when a house is in such bad shape it's deemed unsafe to use.

When the houses are of use, the department sometimes reaches out to other emergency response agencies, extending the training opportunity to law enforcement teams, Morris said. Homeowners typically receive a thank-you letter describing the training that happened on their property.

Lake Oswego Building Official Bob Gilmore said there probably isn't a direct connection between the number of houses offered to the fire department for training and a jump in building permit activity at city hall, but Lake Oswego has seen a 23 percent increase in permits for new single-family homes within city limits this year.

'I'm quite sure that some of those houses have replaced houses that had been demolished,' Gilmore said, noting property owners may simply be looking for 'a more economical way to demolish their building.'

Gerald Rowlett of Westlake Development Group is the contractor working on the Bonaire Avenue house that Lake Oswego firefighters recently helped destroy. He said the home's owners bought the property but found the house 'didn't fit their needs.'

'They fell in love with the location and the lot,' Rowlett said. 'It's so hard to find the right piece of property and especially one with much size in that area.'

Offering it to the fire department just made sense, he said. Now, they plan to replace the old 1,260-square-foot house, built in 1953, with a 2,500-square-foot home. The lot is about a half-acre, according to county tax records, and the property was last sold for $195,000 in February.

Fire training aside, the replacement home will be newsworthy in its own right, Rowlett said. The house will be built using only materials from U.S. sources.

'We believe we're building the first made-in-America home in the Northwest,' he said.