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South Neighborhoods
Smoke without fire: Firefighters turn disused building into school of safety

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It began with one small puff of smoke seeping from the open dining-room window. But in less than five minutes, smoke billowed from every window of the dilapidated two-story house.

About 20 people stood outside watching the smoke with great interest. As it became dense, they strapped on air tanks and breathing masks and calmly discussed who would enter the building first.

Nick Sohyda, one of several Mt. Lebanon firefighers who train other firefighters, cuts a relief hole in the roof of a house on the old Kane Hospital grounds in Scott being used in The Scrubgrass Project, a joint training exercise for the Bower Hill and Mt. Lebanon fire departments. The house was filled with theatrical smoke. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Roughly half of the group were experienced firefighters, while the other half were training to be volunteer firefighters and had never entered a building filled with smoke so thick they couldn't have seen their own hands held in front of their faces.

Normally, the experienced firefighters would have rushed into the house at the first sign of smoke. But on a recent crisp autumn night they took their time, knowing there would be no fire this time.

The odorless, nontoxic smoke was being produced by a machine. The house, on a secluded lot that was part of the old Kane Hospital property in Scott, has been vacant for at least 20 years. It reportedly had been the residence of the head of security at the Allegheny County-owned hospital.

The Bower Hill Volunteer Fire Department on Vanadium Road in Scott recently got the go-ahead to use the old house for training exercises.

In what they call The Scrubgrass Project, Bower Hill firefighters use the house to train their own volunteers. They quickly decided to make the house available to other departments, said Peter Yohe, battalion chief at Bower Hill and Scrubgrass Project manager.

Allegheny County operates a heavily used firefighters training facility at North Park. The Scrubgrass Project gives firefighters a close-to-home opportunity to log more training time.

The red brick house perches high atop a hill at Scrubgrass Road and Main Street in Scott with a panoramic view of the Route 50 shopping centers.

So far, the training exercises have included search and rescue techniques, involving the use of the smoke machine, and firefighter survival skills. Firefighters plan to conduct as many training sessions as possible.

The training grand finale is expected to happen next spring, when firefighters will set the house on fire and then put it out.

Last week volunteer firefighters from Bower Hill, Mt. Lebanon and Castle Shannon reported to a four-hour training session that came at the end of their paid day jobs.

New recruits and probationers who made up half of the training group will undergo at least 88 hours of training before being allowed inside a burning building.

Entering a smoke-filled house is not for the claustrophobic. Neither is wearing the face masks that supply firefighters with life-saving air.

"Some people can work through that and get over it," said Charlie Wehrum of the Mt. Lebanon department. He's one of the firefighters who has received additional training to train other firefighters. "Others just can't do it, but there are other jobs they can do."

The beauty of the Scrubgrass Project is that volunteers can practice moving around in disorienting smoke in a situation where no one's life is endangered.

They'll practice using their vital air packs and face masks, and they'll learn emergency breathing techniques to use if their equipment malfunctions.

Without nontoxic smoke filling up the Scrubgrass house, the new recruits practiced moving through the house with hoses.

"Only one person on a staircase at any time," yelled Nick Sohyda, another Mt. Lebanon fireman who trains. "That way if the stairs collapse, only one firefighter goes down."

The firefighters worked in groups of four for each section of hose.

One of Sohyda's tips is never to have all four firefighters on the same side of the hose. The hoses are heavy when filled with water, and if everyone's on the same side, the water supply can be cut if the hose makes a sharp turn.

"This isn't brain science here," Sohyda said, "but there are some techniques" in firefighting. "Slow down and do it right, and you will get better results."

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.

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