Montgomery County (MD) Fire & Rescue Training Academy

FORCING INWARD SWINGING DOORS IN TIGHT QUARTERS.  On a visit to Montgomery County, Maryland, my good, long-time friend Andy Levy, Coordinator of the North Central Region of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, introduced me to Captain Jay Blake, who was then the In-Service Training  Coordinator at the Montgomery County (MD) Fire and Rescue Training Academy– FRTA. While we were there, Jay gave us a thorough tour of their training site.  As we approached the Academy’s Burn Building,  Jay commented that they felt that forcible entry classes often lacked sufficient attention to working in low visibility and tight quarters.  Therefore, part of their in-service rapid intervention team (RIT) evolution in the Burn Building, involved some serious tight quarters entry.

I had just delivered a 72″ Hawk/Raptor combination to Jay but had a 42″ Hawk/Raptor along.  So, as we moved through the Burn Building, he took the opportunity to test the shorter tool’s potential for dealing with the tight-quarters entry problems he’d been discussing.  At the top of a long, dark, narrow flight of stairs was a steel forcible entry prop on an inward steel swinging door. It was hinged on the left.  This length tool provides a good balance between tight space use and sufficient length for useful mechanical advantage.  Jay didn’t have the door prop dialed up to its full “Fort Knox” level of challenge, so, popping the door with the Raptor didn’t present a terrific challenge.

Ordinarily, if more force been required, the rear-facing adze on the Hawk (with a shorter fulcrum) could have been a better choice.  But, in this case, the stair corridor was about a foot wider on each side than the doorway– there wasn’t any working space for the handle.  In response to the tight space, Jay rotated the tool about 45° downward and found that the flare (widening) of the adze at the rear allowed it to enter the gap and still have enough room to use the handle as a lever; once the gap widened a little he was able to work the handle up to a horizontal position and pry normally (see photos below).

CONTEMPORARY TRAINING IN A “LEGACY” FACILITY.  At the time we visited, the academy was in the process of relocating to a new facility.  The old site was part of a larger Public Safety Training Academy which included the Montgomery County Police Training Academy.   It was built in the 70s on a 56-acre site on the edge of Rockville, which was then a fairly young suburb of Washington, DC.  It had long since outgrown its site and its mission.  However, the facility was still one of the most energetic and current academies you’d find anywhere.

On arrival, you couldn’t help but be distracted by the impressive fleet of modern apparatus, used to support the FRTA’s recruit program and in-service driver/operator courses.  There seemed to be academy apparatus everywhere.   We entered the large administrative and classroom building through a full-scale (but simulated) fire station that’s attached to a large administrative and classroom building.

A big part of Jay’s work involves development and delivery of continuing education for firefighters, including one or more major new department-wide training initiatives virtually every year.  The previously mentioned RIT course is an excellent example.  For this program, the Burn Building was transformed into an amazingly complex and comprehensive series of RIT-related props.  Besides the previously mentioned forcible entry prop at the top of the stairs, the building-size prop includes: a) a number of wall breaching areas, with an ingenious method of replacing sheets of drywall and heavy reusable steel studs, b) an interior collapse scenario with SERIOUS disentanglement challenges, c) other entry and access challenges sprinkled throughout the facility, etc.  Far more than a set of repetitious, individual props, this was an arduous full-blown scenario, requiring lots of ingenuity.

RIT training is heavily scenario-based, with lots of decision making thrown in.  Starting outside, crews are given a Mayday scenario by radio.  They first have to select an access route: first floor or second-floor window; first-floor door; breaching a wall?  Each choice exposes crews to additional challenges: new entry problems, debris fields (top left above), wall breaching (top right and left center) or structural collapse (bottom illustrations).

The structural collapse prop is particularly challenging.  It is a heavy, full-scale section of framing hinged at one side, but trapping a rescue dummy “victim” under the other.  Crews have to use the equipment they brought (or wait for it to be shuttled in) to lift the structure off the victim.  To ensure the safety of the evolution, an instructor, out of sight on top of the assembly, backs up the crew’s lifting progress using a mechanical advantage rig attached to the ceiling.

A “LEGACY” TRAINING FACILITY THAT STAYS “MODERN.”  On a recent visit to Maryland, my good, long-time friend Andy Levy, Coordinator of the North Central Region of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, made arrangements for me to visit Montgomery County (MD’s) Fire and Rescue Training Academy– FRTA.  It was pretty neat.  The academy is part of a larger Public Safety Training Academy which includes the Montgomery County Police Training Academy.

A STATIC FACILITY THAT’S “DYNAMIC.”  Jay gave us a thorough tour of the facility. It isn’t particularly new.  But, Jay and other staffers keep programs fresh and relevant with some exceptionally innovative training concepts.  And, on-site Technical Services Coordinator (“Ninjaneer”) Chris Hinkle (above, right) oversees the fabrication of some remarkable spaces and props to ensure that the intentions of the training programs are implemented in detail.

The academy site is a marvel of compact training innovation.  Everywhere you look, around every corner, you find ingenious props developed to solve some of fire training’s most perplexing challenges.  The “Buffalo Mayday Prop” (below, top left photo), for example, uses pneumatically controlled USAF bomb bay doors to simulate floor collapse, simultaneously challenging students to consider methods of extricating themselves from basements and other areas of structural entrapment.  Other props give experience with hose loads and hose deployment (one example is the fire body in the upper right photo, below), rooftop ventilation involving roof surfaces of varying pitches (lower left) and gaining access via overhead garage-type doors (individual panels from replaced doors are donated for use in the “garage door prop, at right bottom, below).

STRATEGIC COMMAND TRAINING.  FRTA was an early pioneer in developing complex, real-time simulation of emergency situations.  They developed one of the first facilities dedicated to this approach (see photos below).  Inside it are several different spaces to simulate command from a staff vehicle-based command post, a multi-agency command center, and a live on-scene, multi-unit incident.  The latter makes use of a gigantic scale model of a representative suburban cityscape, complete with road, rail, and air networks, residential, commercial and industrial developments, etc., etc.  If participants run out of emergencies to handle, there is a near-by locker that’s full of additional and highly specialized response resources, lots of extra-alarm apparatus, and plenty of new simulated hazards.

CAMPUS LANDMARKS. The undisputed centers of attention at the academy are the command tower (at left in the background of the top photo) and the formidable burn building (at right).  There is also a large technical rescue training site tucked in along one edge of the site, that includes an expansive array of constructions and debris piles for use in confined space, trench, high angle and other technical rescue subjects.  The tower provides a panoramic view of the entire complex, allowing training coordinators to synchronize and optimize the simultaneous use of its resources by an army of recruits and active fire companies. The burn tower accommodates the smoke, laddering, ventilation essential to any effective recruit training program.  But, it also undergoes regular internal revisions to accommodate constantly changing departmental in-service training needs.

PEOPLE– CHIEF MIKE CLEMENS.  As we walked toward the Burn Building, came across Chief Mike Clemons (pictured at left in the photo below).  Chief Clemons, now retired (sorta’), was formerly Training Chief, in charge of FRTA. Though retired from the academy, he is far from out-of-work; he is currently coordinating plans for relocation of the academy to a new site, with its own new challenges.  I had long known of him as a firefighter who designed and produced, among other things, specialized, vinyl coated medical and equipment bags (which were incredibly functional and durable).  Over the years, I have used a number of Clemens trauma bags, ordering them directly from Clemens Industries, and had spoken with Mike by phone on several occasions.  But, I had never met him in person and wasn’t aware of the breadth of his achievements in the career fire service.  It was fun getting to meet and talk with him in person.

From left to right: Chief Mike Clemens, Andy Levy, and Captain Jay Blake.
Screen shot 2016-07-03 at 8.26.56 AM
Captain Richard Clemens, PGFD (Retired).

PEOPLE– CAPTAIN RICHARD CLEMENS. Another part of the fun of meeting Chief Clemens was that I had previously gotten to know his brother, Richie– also an active, well-known figure in the Maryland fire service– when he was a career Firefighter/Technician with the Prince Georges Fire Department.  Richie retired in 2010, having been, among other things, Captain with PGFD,  Assistant Fire Marshall for Baltimore Washington International Airport, and Chairman of the Maryland Fire Prevention Commission, on which he had served since 1998.

In the 1980s and 90s, I was spending a good deal of time at the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD). During a portion of that period, Richie was serving there as part of the career daytime crew. I was able to spend a fair amount of time with him.  He was always thinking, imagining ways of tweaking the performance of routine functions and especially the role of tools and equipment in achieving those ends. And, he was generous in sharing some of the trials and tribulations of developing translating his experiences into new products for the fire service.

TOOLS– THE CLEMENS HOOK & CLEMENS WRECKING TOOL II.  Richie has had a strong influence on my long-time interest in fire hand tools and was the inspiration for designing tools, myself. At the time I met him, he was already well known for an overhaul tool he had developed– the Clemens Hook– a greatly improved alternative to the pike pole.

Of course, pike poles have long been a fire service staple for pulling apart building assemblies. Unfortunately, despite their proliferation, most are only marginally effective in contemporary use. When pulled, their narrow profiles tend to make thin incisions as they back out of common wall materials, rather than bringing down larger, productive sections of material.  And, most types lack the effective prying edges that are an equally important part of overhaul. Few afford an efficient chopping capability.

With the Clemens Hook, Richie introduced a broad rear-facing surface that greatly improved work with sheetrock.  It also has a bold transverse “blade” along the bottom of the pulling surface.  This, coupled with the tool’s hefty weight, also make it a good chopping tool.  I’d had flirtations with some pretty generic axes, while a member of the Ashford (CT) Volunteer Fire Department.  But, the Clemens Hook’s attributes (plus non-stop promotion by Andy Levy), resulted in its being my first new, specific purpose fire tool purchase.  I used it exclusively, and enthusiastically, for many years. And, its influence endures; my current Nevada department’s engines and truck each have a couple onboard, and my original version (and several others) still gets their share of attention in the classes we teach.

The yellow version represents the Clemens Hook in its original malleable iron form. Somewhat later it was patented (repatented?) as the Clemens Wrecking Tool II. This was very similar to the original but had a more pronounced back rib (top two tools), and was available in either the original “beefy” iron form or a lighter aluminum version.
Hyattsville built up a Clemens Hook on a single bit, fiberglass axe handle.  So did I– it’s my favorite configuration of the tool.  It seems to have some staying power at HVFD, too; I’ve seen it around there, off-and-on, for years, and would be surprised if it isn’t still riding around with them on something.

POSTSCRIPT.  I visited MCFRTA in May of 2016.  At the time we met, Captain Jay Blake was anticipating return to an operational role with Montgomery County.  As for the academy itself, the new (even more impressive), replacement facility is well underway.  At this date, Chief Clemens has posted an extensive series of photos on progress; very unique, very impressive.

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