In the dark and dust, a Williamsburg firefighter pulled himself through a narrow hole in a concrete wall at the Williamsburg Shopping Center.
Fire crews from the city, as well as James City and York counties, spent four days at the shopping center to hone their skills on a variety of building styles and materials. The training ended Wednesday.
Concrete, wood, sheetrock, plaster, steel, tar shingles — firefighters can’t be picky when it comes to saving lives. They have to know how to get in and out of places to put fires out and save lives.
They train for every type of home or business, according to James City County Fire Department fire instructor Betsy Sink.
“These are block walls,” Sink said pointing at a cinderblock wall as colleagues hammered it to dust. “A lot of times when we run into a block wall we think it’s like a fortress. We can’t get through it. This is a confidence drill more than anything.”
Firefighters from the three departments were invited to train at the site before it’s remodeled by the general contractor and property owner Broad Street Realty, according to Williamsburg Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Larry Snyder.
On Wednesday, more than 10 fire rescue vehicles lined up outside the shopping center, while more than a dozen firefighters trained onsite.
“Just the diversity of building construction, from metal studs to different plywood, obviously we’ve got larger ceilings,” Snyder said, “What a unique and awesome opportunity that Henderson (general contractor), Broad Street Realty and Midtown Row provided.”
The training opportunity on such a large commercial property is without recent precedent, Snyder said. The last training held by the departments at a commercial building was at an old motel three and a half years ago.
Firefighters breached sheetrock, plywood and concrete walls, forced entry through steel doors and cut holes in the roof to simulate the creation of a safe airflow, according to James City County Fire Department spokesman Al Catlett.
In one drill, four firefighters were locked in a cramped bathroom and told their only way out was through the roof in a simulated basement escape.
In another drill, firefighters cut the hinges off a steel door to allow escape access to the commercial building.
At the end of the day, Snyder said the training wouldn’t have been possible or as beneficial without community partners such as Broad Street Realty and the James City and York fire departments.
“When we heard that the James City and the City of Williamsburg Fire Departments wanted to utilize some of the vacant buildings for training purposes, we were thrilled to offer them that opportunity,” Broad Street Realty spokeswoman Brynn Jacoby wrote in an email. “We know how vital their work is to the community, and we are happy to help in any way we can. This is just one of many ways we hope to continue to partner with the community as we develop Midtown Row.”
Snyder said there’s a chance the departments will train even more at the property as demolition continues.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.