How Not To Conduct Firefighter Training

By Scott Longman

He had all the heavy bunker gear on, and wouldn’t have minded getting on with it.  But Fireman Private Carl Edwards knew and respected the chain of command.  

“Chief, do we want to get the whole Company out here first?”

By “Company,” he meant Company 28 of the West Lanham Hills Volunteer Fire Department, Prince Georges County, Maryland. It was a Tuesday night, a drill night, and they had a house to burn down.

Chief Al Crook looked at him, shook his head. “Nah. Just get it going. They’ll be here soon enough.”

A pause.

“And I don’t want to be here all night.”

Roger that, Sir. 

The house was a giant frame Victorian, taken by the Feds under eminent domain to create what we know today as the Washington Beltway, right about where it now hits Route 50 on the eastern side. Somebody had the great idea of using the house for firefighting training. It was constructed from eighty year old wood, bone dry, bottom-to-top of its three stories.  

In the basement lurked one of those old monster coal burning “octopus” furnaces.  Compared with today’s heating options, they seem impossibly huge, big enough to live in, with absurdly large delivery and return vents sticking off in all angles and directions. In dim light, they look like some undersea malevolence from a Pirates of The Caribbean movie.  

Carl duly made entry to the structure and got to work. He was packing a big jerrycan full of gasoline, and he intended to make damn sure he lit the place on fire. It wouldn’t do to have the whole Company show up to some little barely-flickering roast-marshmallows thing.  

He hit upon the idea of knocking holes through the lathe-and-plaster, to access the underlying wood structure, which he then did with some enthusiasm, pouring gasoline into the walls in several locations.  

Then his eye fell on one of the heating system floor vents.

Those things were huge by modern standards, maybe two feet by one foot, with a heavy wrought-iron grate over the top. Perfect. The lengthy ducting beneath would help disperse the gasoline, and since heat and fire rise, having a bunch of it in the basement would ensure a good burn.  

Right. 

But what it did not take into account is that sheet metal is non-porous. Gas poured on it will do one of two things: continue its gravity-dictated downhill journey, or volatilize into vapors, and, indeed, given a long enough pitch, it will enthusiastically do both. And, if any liquid remained by the time it got to the enormous furnace, then the gas would volatilize there, and began dispersing through the other vents, in the sort of air-dispersion way the whole system had once been carefully designed to do.

He poured the jerrycan down half a dozen of those vents, finishing it.  

From the living room, the window facing the front yard, where the Chief was, was open. Fortunately. 

Now, there’s a concept in combustion called “reaching stoichiometric,” which is a fancy way of saying that your air-fuel mixture is just right. It works with carburetors, grain silo explosions and . . . fuel-air explosives.  

He had, however inadvertently, reached stoichiometric.

Out the window, he hollered:  “Sir, are we good to go?”

Greenlight. 

Carl turned around, pulled out an old-school wooden match, struck and tossed it.

CATACLYSM.

The next moment of consciousness, Carl recognized that he was lying flat on his back, far into the front lawn, with his Chief silently towering over him and, apparently, yelling. 

Behind the Chief, the house was, as firemen say, completely involved, the entire structure explosively ablaze, rising to the sky, not just a fire, but a firestorm inferno. And not just the house. The surrounding trees, too. Everything. 

They ended up calling in backup, Companies 9 and 33, a full-on Three Alarm. Just to make sure it didn’t spread to houses that weren’t subject to that eminent domain. 

He was still shocked, but, consistent with being Carl, he was magnificently undaunted. He looked at the Chief.

“Sir, it looks like we might end up being here all night after all.”  




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