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By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Firefighters seized an opportunity this weekend and used a vacant big-box store to train in case an occupied one catches fire in the future.
More than a dozen firefighters with Winchester and Frederick County Fire and Rescue departments participated in the exercises, or "evolutions," at the former Fun Expedition and Circuit City building on Pleasant Valley Road. New federal guidelines require municipalities train for firefighter rapid intervention operations, according to Scott Cullers, chief of the Winchester Fire and Rescue Department.
"There have been a large, increased number of big-box incidents -- big-box stores like Lowe's, Target, things like that -- where firefighters have lost their lives or got lost in buildings when they're on fire," Cullers said. "So this allowed us to do some valuable training in a big-box building and actually do some demolition."
Firefighters for the first time had an opportunity to use the former Circuit City building before crews demolish the structure to make way for a Longhorn Steakhouse. Brett Mashchak, site development manager with Longhorn, allowed the departments to use the building and firefighters agreed not to hold the company liable for any injuries, Cullers said.
Training began Wednesday and continued through Sunday. Cullers noted firefighters had a "short window" because demolition of the structure is set for today.
An early exercise called for firefighters to enter the building using ropes, searching for colleagues who may have fallen or otherwise not come out of the structure.
"If you can imagine, if this store had aisles and furniture and inventory, in zero visibility, it'd be very easy to get disoriented," Cullers said.
Firefighters put on their gear and then blacked out their masks to simulate zero visibility. Crews also pulled down ceiling material to simulate a structure collapse; ventilation by cutting through the rubber membrane and metal roof deck; escaping from one room to another by breaking through drywall and crawling through the space to a safer area; and pulling and connecting water hoses in darkness.
In addition, firefighters had to locate a device that makes a noise after a crew member has gone missing after 30 seconds.
Big-box stores pose unique challenges for firefighters.
"Just the sheer size is the biggest thing," Cullers said. "Also, most of them have elevated rack storage. You can get caught up in between rack storage or the racks will fall over on you and then they get disoriented that way.
"This is like a single-family dwelling but a hundred times larger," Cullers said. "When the sprinkler system's activated, you'll have cold smoke and it will really reduce your visibility inside."
Cullers, who worked as a firefighter in Loudoun County, recalled having to battle such a blaze at least once.
"Most of these guys have never experienced this, which is a good thing, but at least now they're able to experience it during a training operation," he said.