On Nicholson Drive south of LSU, thousands of motorists pass by, mostly oblivious to LSU’s Carrol L. Herring Fire & Emergency Training Institute just across the railroad tracks. But for occasional plumes of smoke, locals might not know it exists.
The smoke, people notice.
“We had Exxon training here once, and it was a pretty big exercise,” said Eddie Tessmer, manager of industrial programs. “Someone told me that 911 got 121 calls: ‘Something over there is burning.’ Oh, yeah. Something was burning.”
Something isn’t always burning at FETI. But, in the 50 years since the Legislature created the program, it has provided training for untold thousands of fire, rescue and other emergency personnel. Its instructors go all over the state. Its students come from all over the world.
“LSU is considered to be one of the premier training entities in the United States and Canada,” said Dave Casey, who took over in August as director after running a similar program in Florida. “There are facilities that have more props than we do, but this is probably one of the three best as far as actual live fire (training), especially for industrial settings. ... You have the flammable liquids, the dangerous materials.”
“That’s our big thing here: Real-life props and real-life training,” said Carey King, FETI’s media coordinator. “We get firefighters to practice the way they see emergencies unfold.”
A lot of those emergencies don’t unfold the way they once did, especially in house fires.
Fifty years ago, Casey noted, homes were much smaller, and contained few products made with plastics and other hydrocarbons. They were not as well insulated, so smoke escaped more easily.
He said house fires today burn eight times hotter than a half-century ago, engulf a room much faster and create toxic gases such as hydrogen cyanide.
A study on the prevalence of that gas was recently conducted in Jacksonville, Fla.
“They put hydrogen cyanide detectors on crews to determine what percent of the fires they were going to would encounter this at a lethal level at what’s called a working structure fire, something that’s more than just a fire extinguisher could put out,” Casey said. “They came up to just under 100 percent.”
Convenience for a homeowner may mean death for a firefighter.
“The new pull-downs for your attic (stairs) have pneumatic struts, which make it a lot nicer for the homeowner, but during the fire they blow off and they send shrapnel. So, dealing with hydrogen cyanide, low visibility, high heat, the stress of trying to find somebody inside, you’ve got parts blowing up and shooting at you.”
All the more reason to make training as realistic as possible. Realism means real fire.
That is why the center is located on 84 acres of land provided by the LSU Agricultural Center well away from campus and, despite residential growth from the north and south, still more than a half-mile from any neighborhood.
A three-story burn building was built in 1976 for $200,000, and is close enough to Nicholson Drive to provide a free show for motorists when training takes place there.
Metal bins containing clean wood and organic hay (to prevent toxic fumes) create the smoke and flames that firefighting trainees must encounter.
Some of the most interesting training is out of public view.
The facility has an old airplane, where trainees learn to search for people in the cramped, smoke-filled passenger cabin, and a separate mockup of a burning plane.
There are places devoted to training how to find people in industrial tanks and other confined spaces, rescue from elevated areas, a rubble pile to teach dogs to search by scent and teach humans how to use a tube to search for sounds of life, even a grounded tugboat to train for fires aboard ship.
Another prop shows how smoke can itself burst into flame.
“You get to see it better in there,” Casey said. “In a normal house, you don’t see it as well. If you’re in a building and you’re starting to see where the smoke is starting to ignite, that is a bad sign.”
The municipal fire training is funded by a portion of homeowners insurance premiums. Industries pay to train their fire crews, and a few trainees pay their own way.
In addition to fire training, FETI also teaches emergency medical specialist skills.
Casey said FETI has a great working relationship with municipal fire departments, with many fire chiefs coming to watch their employees train. In a year, more than 2,400 people will train there, and FETI also has 12 regional instructors who train at departments around the state.
“What attracted me here is we’re putting the firefighters, whether industrial or municipal, in as realistic an environment as can be simulated,” Casey said. “It’s real fire. If they stand up, they really get hurt.
“The simulation comes from the fact that the building they’re in won’t fall down around them, like for real. We have the safety factors of being able to direct hose streams very quickly into an area and knock down a fire should a candidate have a problem.
“But it’s not a computer game. They can get hurt.”