Trainees learn about tackling fires on land and shipsFire bursts from a ruptured fuel line in the ship's engine room. Smoke begins billowing out as more flames shoot from a grate in the floor; the temperature in the closed space soars, forcing the occupants to kneel close to the floor. Suddenly fire shoots from a vent and roils across the ceiling.

And U.S. Coast Guardsman Tony Lolli is having a blast.

Lolli is controlling it all - the flames, the smoke, the heat - from a hand-held control panel. He's not aboard a stricken vessel but inside the new state-of-the-art training facility at Clatsop Community College's Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

MERTS fire instructor Jerry Alderman demonstrates fighting a simulated grease fire in a galley. The Fire Research and Response Center is designed to give firefighters a safe but realistic setting to practice battling blazes in a variety of scenarios. The three-story metal building on the MERTS campus at Tongue Point is the first of its kind in Oregon, according to Maritime Science and Fire Director Bill Antilla.

On Wednesday the center hosted fire officials from as far away as Portland who came to learn how to run training exercises at the facility for their own staff.

With natural gas-fed flames and simulated smoke that can be turned on and off with the push of a button, the center provides a controllable setting for fire training that's a vast improvement over traditional methods, which typically involved setting an abandoned house on fire.

In a traditional exercise, some scrap wood would be piled up, doused with a fuel and set on fire, Antilla said. If the crew attacking the blaze did something wrong, the fire would have to be extinguished, then set up to burn again. That means lengthy delays, and the wood wouldn't burn the same the second time.

With the new training center, the simulation can be shut down immediately, the trainees corrected, and the exercise started up again in two minutes.

The center, built by the Symtron company of New Jersey with a $2.2 million U.S. Navy grant, was designed by MERTS staff to provide realistic training for marine fires for both ship crews and land-based firefighters, and traditional structure fires on land, Antilla said.

Each exercise can be crafted for a particular situation, such as an oil fire in an engine room. Or a room could be filled from floor to ceiling with dense smoke, forcing trainees to deal with near-zero visibility. The growth and intensity of the flames can also be controlled to simulate the effectiveness of various firefighting techniques.

"There's not a whole lot you can't do," he said.

One room contains a facsimile grill for training in fighting galley fires. A mechanical sensor behind the grill reads the strength of the spray of water from a fire hose hitting the fire - if the person is directing too hard a stream, the system automatically cranks up the flames, simulating the actual effect of hitting burning oil or grease.

"If you don't do it correctly, it won't go out," Antilla said.

The rooms contain both traditional doors and ship hatches, to simulate both land-based and shipboard settings. Traditional firefighting, search-and-rescue, hose tactics, ladder drills and other exercises are possible.

"There are unlimited possibilities, that's the neat thing," said Jerry Alderman, chief of Lewis and Clark Fire District and MERTS fire instructor.

Sensors in the room keep track of temperature, smoke and gas, and automatically shut down the systems if any reach a hazardous level, and emergency shut-off buttons are located at several spots in the building. All the activities are monitored, via computer and radio, from a control room next door, where the smoke and flames can also be turned on and off, Antilla said.

In the event of an emergency, the flames and smoke can be shut down immediately and the room vented within 30 seconds, he said.

Currently there are four live-fire rooms set up in the building, and MERTS is seeking federal funds to equip five more, Antilla said.

MERTS plans to open the facility to public at an upcoming open house, and even invite citizens to put on turn-outs and airmask, pick up a hose and get a taste of firefighting, he said.