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Firefighters more than just that: They save lives

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The mission of the Columbus Fire Department is to save lives and protect property, and we strive to offer the best fire suppression and emergency medical services to fulfill our mission. This year, under the direction of Mayor Kristen Brown, our role has expanded immediately and significantly to include preparation for other emergencies, including technical rescue events like ice water rescue, natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes and man-made disasters like terrorism.

The need for disaster response training couldn’t be more apparent given our community’s high risk for floods and tornadoes and particularly in light of the devastation wrought by the flood of 2008 and the recent tornadoes in our neighboring communities, just 50 miles away.

This year, for the first time ever, our firefighters completed Indiana Department of Homeland Security natural disaster response training at the Muscatatuck Urban Training Center in Jennings County — once in the spring and once in the fall. We also recently completed communitywide emergency response training at the Columbus Municipal Airport that involved hazardous materials and an explosive device simulation.

The training exercises this year provided experiences that developed firefighters’ knowledge and skills in responding to these types of disasters. It also gave our firefighters practice in coordinating with other agencies, including police, firefighters, medics and other emergency responders from across the state. Coordination among agencies is crucial during large-scale emergencies to ensure efficiency and safety for the responders and the people they are serving.

The Homeland Security exercises at Muscatatuck in April and September, “Tornado Alley” and “Without Warning,” simulated severe weather disasters, including a flood and an EF5 tornado.

Muscatatuck is the nation’s premier urban training facility that offers real-life scenarios we cannot find anywhere else to test these core elements. It has structures that can be collapsed, a city with streets and buildings that are flooded, and a village is destroyed as if a tornado had hit it. The training center also happens to be located in our own backyard.

When Columbus firefighter crews arrived at Mustcatatuck for the “Tornado Alley” training, they were inundated with the sights and sounds of a city in distress with victims on rooftops, smoke and fire, and impassable roads. Muscatatuck took on the look and feel of a tornado disaster area. Firefighters participated in four mock scenarios, including a trailer fire with a heart attack victim; an auto accident involving a van, bus and 17 victims; a refinery fire with a hazardous materials release resulting in injuries and a fatality; and a parking garage collapse with victims.

“Without Warning” provided realistic situations that required organization and communication between multiple agencies. One morning, firefighters found themselves in a damaged building only to become trapped by a collapse, responded to a riot and fire at a jail, cleaned up a hazardous materials spill in a large two-story building and rescued victims from roofs of flooded homes.

The communitywide training at the Columbus Municipal Airport in October offered different emergency circumstances and experiences. It was organized by the Bartholomew County Local Emergency Planning Committee to simulate emergencies that could lead to a man-made catastrophe, including hostage situations, hazardous radioactive materials and explosives.

The exercise started with a call of suspicious activity around an airplane that landed at the airport, which developed into a gunman holding a hostage on the plane and the discovery of radioactive material and a bomb on board. Columbus Firefighters responded from Stations 1, 2 and 5 to test the mock hostages for radioactive contamination and help handle the hazardous materials.

These training scenarios underscore the magnitude of threats facing our community. As first responders, we must be well prepared and ready to serve in the wake of a disaster.

Our fire department is your all-hazards agency. We are jacks of all trades. These live simulations of emergencies are invaluable boots-on-the-ground training for our firefighters. Because of these experiences, we are rapidly becoming the master of all that threatens lives and property in our community.

David Allmon is chief of the Columbus Fire Department.

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