From a distance, it could have been mistaken for a Hollywood action movie set.
On one corner of a sprawling 25-acre site in West Carroll Township, crews on Sunday were cutting through an overturned tractor-trailer cab to rescue someone trapped inside. Just yards away, a tactical team was working quickly to build a support frame around a door in a building they were told was in danger of collapsing.
And up the hill, firefighters were storming into a home and crawling through dark rooms to find a fire victim trapped on the third floor.
But it was all a drill – the type local volunteers have organized for 59 consecutive years at the Cambria County Fire School, bringing hundreds of fresh-faced firefighters from across the state to a former West Carroll Township mine property-turned training ground to hone their craft.
“For young firefighters, training begins at their home fire station. But they’re not going to get a chance just anywhere to rip through tractor-trailers or tear into a building to practice a rescue,” said John Hawksworth, the school’s site committee chairman and an instructor for more than 30 years.
Sponsored by Cambria’s Volunteer Firemen’s Association and Bucks County Community College, weekend courses brought 285 students from as far away as the Scranton area, he said.
Dozens of them are junior-level firefighters ages 14 to 17, Hawksworth added.
“Basically,” Hawksworth said, “this is where you come to hone your skills.”
Behind him, firefighters were practicing rappelling on a wooden tower – a skill that comes into play when vehicles roll down steep hillsides or other hard-to-access locations.
Firefighters younger than 18 received a course on safety, practiced “hitting” hydrants – connecting them to the water source to prepare to attack a fire. Then they swarmed on a building in four- man teams to spray it down, said Jacob Peretin, 17, a firefighter with Adams Township’s Station 84 in St. Michael.
“We dealt with everything but the fire,” Peretin said of the drill, noting they were only permitted to watch older firefighters fight flames.
“There was a lot more going on here than I expected,” added Tyler Cadwallader, 14, a junior firefighter with Portage Volunteer Fire Company.
Up the hill, other firefighters used ladder trucks to practice venting holes in the roof of the school’s burn building, made almost entirely of reinforced concrete.
Outside, East Conemaugh firefighter Tom Reighard Jr. was practicing a rescue. With a few quick moves, he turned an “injured” firefighter’s backpack into a harness he could use to drag the man from a danger zone.
“Sometimes, you only have a few seconds,” Hawksworth said.
He said a 10-member staff of volunteers oversees the drills. Dozens of firefighters spend time in the days before the classes setting the Fire School up and donations also play a role, he noted, saying Cresson-based Calandra Industries donates salvage vehicles for the emergency drills.
Over the next three weeks, the school will serve as a training ground for more than 750 firefighters, organizers said.
“Oftentimes, learning the basics – setting a ladder or rolling a hose – scares young firefighters off,” Hawksworth said, noting those 100 hours of training are a necessary precursor to the training that was offered. “By the time they make it here, they’re bit. Firefighting’s in the blood.”
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