Building donation provides Mitchell firefighters 'valuable opportunity' to take on structure fire training
“It’s few and far between when we get the opportunity to acquire a structure to burn it," Mitchell Fire Marshal Shannon Sandoval said of the live-training exercise crews participated in.
MITCHELL — As Mitchell firefighters navigated through a burning structure on a calm day in late March, they were receiving a rare, valuable opportunity to train for taking on real fires.
Thanks to a local couple, Mike and Pam Bathke, the Mitchell Fire Division was able to use a structure near the south edge of the city to practice containing a real fire. The live-fire exercise took place at the former Peace Light building along Highway 37 that the Bathkes purchased with the intent to demolish for a redevelopment plan.
“It’s few and far between when we get the opportunity to acquire a structure to burn it. We don’t get a chance to do a lot of live fire training,” Fire Marshal Shannon Sandoval said of the fire exercise.
According to Sandoval, there had been three structures donated to the Mitchell Fire Division over the past 25 years to use for training purposes. The latest building donation marked the fourth.
While firefighters have access to participate in yearly training sessions that simulate fires, Sandoval said it’s hard to mimic a real structure fire.
From understanding the intensity of the heat to learning how the fire and smoke travel, Sandoval said the challenge of battling a blaze at a building is unique with each one.
“It gets dark in a hurry. It gets hot really quickly, and it can be debilitating for people who have never been in a situation like that,” Sandoval said of what it's like to battle a real structure fire. “Unfortunately, when we do respond to fires it’s the real thing. It’s nice to be able to work on some weaknesses in a controlled environment.”
While the training drill was rare for the fire division, responding to structure fires isn't. From January through February, the fire division responded to 49 fire calls, three more than in 2022 over the same two-month time span. And some of those calls were structure fires crews responded to.
Throughout all of 2022, there were roughly 300 fire calls, according to the fire division's reports.
The live fire training was especially valuable for rookie firefighters who recently joined Mitchell’s team, Sandoval said. For firefighters who don’t attend an academy program, a structure fire exercise can serve as their first real on-duty fire experience.
“A lot of bigger city departments go through a 13-week academy that have all these simulators that we just don’t have access to,” he said. “We were fortunate to have the backing of the city administration to do this.”
While the training exercise provided an opportunity for firefighters to improve tactical skills like forcible entries, dragging hoses and containing blazes, Sandoval said the goal was to “burn it down as safely as possible.”
Considering the dangers that firefighters face everyday, the hands-on training exercises can improve the safety of firefighters and reduce the tragedy of losing a first responder. That’s been a harsh reality for many fire departments across the U.S.
In 2021, 70 firefighters in the U.S. died while on duty – excluding the 65 fatalities due to the COVID-19 virus – according to the National Fire Protection Association. Of those fatalities, 16 deaths occurred at structure fires, the data says. Prior to COVID-19, from 2014 to 2018, annual on-duty firefighter fatalities hovered around between 60 and 70, according to the National Fire Protection Association.