MCQUEENEY — It was hot — over 600 degrees — and a half-dozen volunteer firefighters hauled a hose around a smoke-filled building, heaving and sweating under their heavy gear, stepping around piles of burning hay.
Nearby, Seguin Firefighter Antonio Gonzales and New Braunfels Fire Department Battalion chief Darren Brinkkoeter barked instructions.
Each lifted a gloved hand in front of his or her face mask as the smoke lowered in the room and the temperature overhead edged to 700 degrees — easily hot enough to burn off paint and plastic and mix the smoke with deadly fumes.
None could see the hand at all.
Brinkkoeter explained how to use a mist of water and an opening in a burning building to vent heat and fumes out and away from the firefighters, and swung open a steel-shuttered window so the firefighters could try the technique — and reduce the temperature for safety.
In stern “command voices” designed to catch and hold the attention of their students, the instructors led the firefighters outside for a half-hour debrief of what they’d just seen — or actually heard and felt — inside the “burn house” located at the Guadalupe County Firefighters Association’s School near Lake McQueeney.
This time it was training — Phase III of four levels of basic firefighter training over 100 hours that is required by the state of all volunteer firefighters who seek basic certification in the craft.
The process takes months or years depending upon the training and the budget available to pay for it — and volunteers do not get paid for their time. It is not required, but the better trained a firefighter is, the safer he or she is, and volunteer departments with highly trained volunteers reduce homeowners insurance rates in their service area by reducing their Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating, which is used by insurers to assess risk — and set rates.
In all, there are three levels of certification for volunteers in Texas — basic, intermediate and advanced — and the total time of all the training is about 600 hours.
A volunteer who has completed all three levels can challenge the state’s certification for paid firefighters without going through those schools.
Saturday and Sunday, more than 100 volunteer firefighters from this and adjacent counties as far away as Katy participated, said Scott Matthews, an instructor with the Texas Emergency Extension Services out of College Station, who oversaw the course and will award state certificates of training for those firefighters who complete it in two weeks.
Matthews, who lives in New Braunfels, said his agency, known in the public safety field as TEEX, helps with such programs around the state.
“I teach, but I’m also on the road a lot — 26 weeks per year,” he said. “We do a lot of these, and we have about 115 students and instructors here. This is a very good facility and a very good program.”
The program is helped by its access to TEEX.
In addition to his expertise, Matthews brings with him the latest equipment for training. First, not all rural departments can buy it, but even if they can, it can’t always be freed up for training.
“We bring air packs and everything the students need because if they have the equipment, they usually can’t bring it from their departments because they can’t be without it,” Matthews said.
McQueeney Fire Capt. Ryan Blume said the weekend course, which continues Oct. 13 and 14, included classes in fire cause and origin, salvage and overhaul or “mopping up,” as it is often called, managing a structure fire, equipment operation and incident command. In two weeks, he said, firefighters would learn how to write reports, operate trucks and cut trapped victims from vehicles.
New Berlin Volunteer Fire Department Chief Kurt Strey had three firefighters participating as instructors. The local training facility, he said, is vital to a rural community that cannot always afford to send firefighters to the academy at College Station.
“This is a great facility, and it’s right here,” Strey said. “This particular class gets put on once a year. We also have a spring school that addresses different skills. We change it up a little bit so it’s not the same thing over and over again.”
Saturday’s training, which included long hours in the classroom studying fire origin and “extension,” or how it spreads, revolved around the hands-on aspect of the training in the “burn house” a bunker-like, cinder-block structure designed to be burned again and again.
Gonzales and Brinkkoeter put it all together for the trainees when they left the building.
“The key is to go in, do your job, get out alive be able to go home,” Gonzales told the volunteers.
Brinkkoeter told them it would be their training and their gear that protected them.
“We went over several things in there, and we saw several things,” Brinkkoeter said. “You saw visibility ranging to complete darkness and zero visibility. Know about flash point. Understand flashover, rollover and backdraft.”
Consider what a fire is doing, and especially in rural areas, be aware of the water supply, said Brinkkoeter, who in addition to his regular paid shifts as a New Braunfels firefighter, spent years in his off-time volunteering with rural fire departments in Comal County.
“Is your water rate equivalent to the fire, or is it getting an advantage over the amount of water we’re putting on it? What we might want to do is get a bigger hose in or consider whether we want to be in there at all,” Brinkkoeter said. “If there’s a victim or a patient in there, by all means. But if the family was all at the driveway when we came in, we might want to back off.”
American firefighting “bunker gear” and other safety equipment is the best in the world, Brinkkoeter said. But never forget its limitations.
“It was 625 degrees in there, and typically, the average temperature in a structure fire is 1,200 degrees,” Brinkkoeter said. “Our bunker gear is designed to protect you for a couple of seconds at 300 degrees. I’m not saying our gear is bad. It isn’t — it’s the best in the world. But understand its constraints.”
Understand also, he said, the constraints of modern construction — and other construction maybe not so modern.
The plywood gussets on a typical roof truss, Brinkkoeter said, will burn through in 15 minutes when exposed to open flame.
“Think about that,” Brinkkoeter said. “Fifteen minutes. Out in the country, you got the call, you ran to the fire station, got into your equipment, your apparatus, and drove to the scene. How long did that take? Probably about 15 minutes. Do we really need to get up on that roof?”
A short distance away, Matthews, who knows Brinkkoeter well, smiled that New Braunfels’ newest battalion chief, himself son of a retired medic and engineer who now has administrative responsibilities that restrict him from the business end of firefighting, seemed so dedicated to running into the burning building with his students.
“Darren has always just loved this stuff,” Matthews said of Brinkkoeter, who might not have noticed the irony in what he was telling the volunteers he was teaching.
Firefighting is a dangerous business only open to those daring enough — some say crazy enough — to run into a burning building while everyone else is running away, and Brinkkoeter, who had just spent 20 minutes telling his charges how dangerous it all is, then explained why.
“I’m trying to give you the awareness you need to survive,” Brinkkoeter said. “What I’m also trying to do is build your courage.”