A 10-year project at Clatsop Community College will flame on this spring.

The Fire Research and Response Center is nearing completion at the college's Marine and Environment Research and Training Station at Tongue Point.

At a live fire building, fire can rage several times a day - but be turned off with a switch. The conditions can be controlled by computer and an instructor in a training building.

MERTS funded the project through a $2.2 million grant from a U.S. Navy office of naval research federal appropriation Bill Clinton signed during his presidency. The 7,500 square-foot building is compartmentalized into several rooms.

"Every room has the capability of being completely emptied out (of fire) in 30 seconds," Maritime Science and Fire Director Bill Antilla said.

The grant also pays for a building with 1,500 square feet of classroom space. While the fire school is being built, MERTS fire instructor Jerry Alderman has been teaching students to fight fires in an 8 by 20 foot structure.

"People get lost in that building," he said.

When the smoke and fire is going and temperatures reach 500 or 600 degrees, people become disoriented.

"Spontaneous combustion of paper is 450 degrees," Antilla said.

They may be wearing protective equipment and breathing equipment, but they still stagger out of the fire in a daze.

The new three-story building dwarfs the old structure. People will still become lost, but instructors will be able to turn off the fire at any point.

Firemen often train in "burn-to-learn" situations, where they set real structures on fire under controlled circumstances, said Alderman, who has headed the fire department in Lewis and Clark for some 30 years.

"Every year, firefighters are killed in burn-to-learns," he said.

In burn-to-learns, firefighters cannot recreate difficult burns, but at MERTS the building can be emptied of fire within minutes.

"Then you can repeat the burn 10 or 20 times," Antilla said.

Because burn-to-learn projects are so hazardous, some fire chiefs are opting to forgo the training, which leaves young firefighters unprepared for their first fire, Alderman said.

"You can tell somebody what it's like," he said. "You don't know how to react until you're in there."

Last year, MERTS trained more than 500 people through a training program which is part of the certification to work on ships. Alderman is also planning a class for community members who would like to experience a fire.

Firefighters from both land-based and marine-based programs will learn how to fight fires in a realistic environment. The building is about 36 feet tall and made all in steel.

Some rooms have traditional doors, and some have hatches and ship doors. Some of the rooms are designed to simulate ship engine rooms with grates in the floor and some are designed to simulate rooms in houses.

Most of the equipment and furnishings were donated or collected through government surplus. The firefighting equipment was also donated.


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