Working with fire
Recruits learn search-and-rescue, fire-fighting fundamentals

By Daniel Silliman


The smoke comes from somewhere deep within the house.

Filling the hallway, it flows out of the open door in slow billows and drifts across the yard, swirling and thickening until the firefighters standing there, already anonymous in air masks and helmets, become silhouettes.

The hardwood trees, bare before the cold wind, are blotted out by the smoke and take on the look of ominous, fairytale trees.

The scene, however, is a training exercise in progress.

Rich Elliott, a captain at the Clayton County Fire Department, squats outside the open door, peering into the burning house at floor level, letting the smoke pass above his head.

A dark blue wind-breaker, and a black baseball cap, his only protection against the morning's biting cold, and the fire's emanating heat, he squats in the dirt by the door and watches the backs of firefighter recruits duck-walking through the thick smoke.

Elliott, a training instructor, is watching the four recruits in blue helmets, practice a search-and-rescue procedure, going through the blazing building, room by room, in search of a practice dummy.

One firefighter holds the nozzle on the line and the others, bunched up behind him, hang on to the hose with one hand, and feel through the smoky room with their other limbs.

Elliott makes mental notes: They shouldn't be bunched up like that. They should spread out, put in some distance. They should know that. They would know that if this wasn't their first fire, the first time they've entered a flaming house and tried to see through thick smoke and move toward the fire. Elliott will tell them to spread out, not to huddle together like that.

And then, the rookie team turns right, following the wall, to search the next room.

The two dozen recruits are halfway through their training. The Clayton County Fire Department is burning down an abandoned, condemned house, an old two-bedroom structure off Ga. Highway 19/41 in Hampton, donated to the department for training purposes.

Out front, a large sign advertises to passing drivers that the lot is "For Sale by Owner." The owners are behind the house, sitting in a truck parked by the curb, watching the smoke seep through the plywood roof and watching wave after wave of recruits rush in to learn the fundamentals of fire fighting.

They're sitting in the truck with the windows rolled down, so they can smell the burning wood. The water from the hoses and the hydrant streams down the street and swamps the side of the road, turning the grassy ditch into a muddy marsh.

Standing in the yard, Deputy Chief Jerry Russell tells supervisors to criticize the recruits as they go along, and not just wait until the end of the day. One recruit helps another replace an airpack, stripping the pressurized bottle off his back and replacing it with a full, fresh one.

One rookie pulls off his blue helmet, dropping it on the ground. He pulls back a hood and takes off his air mask, breathing the cold, soot-filled air, he straps the mask back on and tightens it tighter around his face.

"Are you ready?" someone asks, and four more recruits grab a hose and plunge into the burning building.