The former Bank of Edwardsville branch on Route 159 in Glen Carbon has spent the past three weeks serving a completely different purpose.

Before the site becomes its next iteration, a Discount Tire Store, area fire agencies have had the opportunity to use the vacant building for training scenarios. 

"I haven't been in a commercial building for training in 10 years," Glen Carbon Fire Chief Jason Whitaker said Thursday.

While it was a day of training, he said the nearby intersection of 159 and Cottonwood/Main Street has enough accidents as it is so there was no need for him and his crew to arrive at the bank with lights and sirens going, attracting unnecessary attention.

Whitaker led the training as incident commander, with Lt. Kiko Perez serving as the instructor for the morning session of full-scale scenarios.

"We've been here for two to four hours a day," Whitaker said. The training opened with such tasks as basic hose line advancement, basic search-and-rescue patterns and victim extraction. Next, they moved to interior door breaching, then to advanced search and rescue techniques, mayday and firefighter rescues, firefighter self-rescues, interior wall breaching and different ventilation types before the crews combined everything they learned during the final three days of full-scale scenarios.

On the east side of the building, previous crews had cut holes in the roof over the drive-through lanes and the backside of the building. On Thursday, those holes facilitated the fake smoke to escape. The crews used artificial stage smoke to simulate the burning, which Whitaker said was completely safe to breathe. 

The smoke simulated near-zero visibility for fire-like conditions. During the training, firefighters entered in full protective gear and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) to search for victims (training dummies) that were placed throughout the building to simulate people overcome with smoke. 

"One tactic used to search in a zero-visibility environment is to use a right- or left-hand search pattern; the firefighter enters the building and decides to go either right or left; you have to stick with whichever way you choose for this tactic to work," Edwardsville Fire Chief James Whiteford said Friday. "The firefighter stays along the wall and reaches out in to the room to feel for any victims.

Whiteford said to think of a building with zero visibility as a maze, especially if it is unfamiliar. This tactic helps firefighters find their way through the maze and also gives them a reliable way to retrace their steps and get back to the entry point. 

The south side of the bank parking lot was used for staging fire vehicles while an ambulance parked on the north side near Walgreens. Two district EMTs helped with the training while they were on-call for any actual emergencies that might occur during the training session.

After getting their orders from Whitaker, the men drove the three trucks out of the back parking lot, looped around the Walgreens and obeyed the traffic signals. They entered from 159, as they would if the call was real.

"To be able to be in a commercial building for training like this; we can't replicate it in a firehouse," he said. "We train to make it as realistic as we can with safe conditions."

He spent most of the training issuing orders via their radio network from the rear of his SUV.

"It’s rare to gain access to a building of this size and quality for training, so fire departments in the area try to make the most of it when opportunities like these happen," Whiteford said. "Access to structures like this is some of the best training for firefighters. Realistic scenarios can be created that force them to practice skills that may otherwise be difficult to train on.

Besides Glen Carbon Fire Protection District, participating police and fire departments and other agencies include were Glen Carbon Police Department, Maryville Fire Department, Edwardsville Fire Department, Troy Fire Protection District, Collinsville Fire Department, Air Evac, Anderson Hospital, Madison County Emergency Management Agency, and Cross Towing. 

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