Propane-fueled flames raced across ceilings like ghosts as shouting Fort Worth firefighters blasted them with water hoses.
But this fire was different — the firefighters were happy to have it.
For more than a decade, Fort Worth firefighters had to travel elsewhere for basic training because their practice structures had been condemned by the city.
But now they’re starting (and putting out) fires at home.
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The department’s new training center — at the $97 million Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex, 505 W. Felix St., shared with city police — has what firefighters call the best live fire facilities in the nation. An eight-story fire tower and a separate burn building are stable enough to handle all the wood and trash trainers throw at them.
For the first time in a long time, the department has the opportunity to train with live fire at will.
Fire Chief Rudy Jackson
The concrete in the old practice tower and burn building at the Fire and Police Training Center began to crack under the heat of ordinary combustibles such as wood, paper, fabric and trash as far back as the 1980s.
Metal sheets were added to the walls, but the heat warped them. The buildings off North Henderson Street near White Settlement Road were condemned in the early 2000s.
Firefighters still used them for rescue drills with theatrical smoke, but they couldn’t do any actual live fire training.
“So we had to go to different facilities,” Jackson said, including some in Johnson County.
The new eight-story building, called “The Tower,” may look like a hotel to passersby on West Felix and Hemphill streets. It has balconies, narrow hallways and stairs, kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms with furniture made of steel.
Outside, a tank filled with 13,000 pounds of propane sets fires in The Tower that can be seen for miles. A mock trash bin, delivery truck and car also can be set ablaze.
In the burn building 50 yards away, fires are manually lit with torches and fueled by wood products, hay bales and excelsior made of aspen wood strips.
Elsewhere in the Bolen center, Fort Worth police use a 30,000-square-foot tactical village to teach recruits the Texas Penal Code one day and active-shooter training the next.
The Tower and burn building are giving firefighters the same kind of real-life training.
Next door to the center, Fire Station 17 will open by spring.
“They all have an opportunity to do way more than what previous firefighters were able to do,” Jackson said. “They are better prepared; they have a better understanding tactically.”
Firefighters are supposed to crawl
Veteran firefighters from Fire Station 14 gave a Star-Telegram reporter and photographer a close look at training in The Tower on a recent November night.
The men crawled down a narrow hallway on the building’s third floor in helmets and gear weighing 45 pounds.
Their faces were covered in sweat and red from the heat — the temperature in the rooms hit 400. Ceilings can reach 800. Once the rooms heat up to 500 at 5 feet above the floor, the propane cuts off and fans kick in as a safety precaution.
The ceiling temperatures can reach 800 degrees.
“We are supposed to stay low inside buildings,” said firefighter Jake Horwedel, who has been with the department for 8 1/2 years. “House fires get a whole lot hotter and harder to see.”
Horwedel and other firefighters crawled to a third-floor bedroom, where fire blasted from the center of a bed. They didn’t flinch.
Smoke from the propane blasts and water-based smoke from machines crept in to make the drill even more disorienting.
“Propane doesn’t put off much smoke, so we have this machine to safely decrease visibility,” said firefighter Kyle Clay, a department spokesman. “We can fill this whole building up with smoke,”
Water from the fire hoses triggers levers in each prop, such as the bed, that cut the fire once enough water has been sprayed.
A 100-foot fire hose filled with water weighs about 210 pounds.
On this night, 707 gallons of water were used to put out the flames.
‘We'll die trying’
Firefighter Rick Jones, Tower trainer, watches scenarios unfold in a control room.
From the command center, he can pipe in sounds of babies crying, people screaming “Help me!” and shouting. He can even add smells to the smoke, including that of a burning body.
“We create chaos to make it harder to communicate,” Jones said.
But the training building is safe, he said. An instructor is always on duty with a remote to shut down the propane if need be.
The new burn building can withstand temperatures up to 2,000 degrees.
The concrete at the old facilities cracked because fire was consistently hitting it directly, Clay said. The new burn building is insulated with Padgenite boards, which can be replaced as needed.
“The [burn] building is probably the closest that we can get to an actual structure fire with higher temperatures and realistic smoke, Clay said.
Recruits train from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays for 8 1/2 months before they become certified as structural firefighters.
“Real fires are extremely, extremely hot and physically demanding,” said Capt. Byron Brown, who oversees training for recruits.
If they prove themselves, the recruits will join the 900-plus firefighters in the department.
We take an oath that if there’s a life to be saved you can’t quit. We won’t. We’ll die trying.
Capt. Byron Brown
What’s with the ’stache?
Fun fact: Many fire departments, including the Fort Worth’s, do not allow firefighters to have beards because they interfere with the airtight seal around breathing masks.
Mustaches, however, are OK, and are seen as a part of the firefighter tradition. — Firefighter Kyle Clay