Smoke bellowed out of the broken windows of the white, two-story house, as several firetrucks surrounded the property of 1717 W. Ashland St. With their hoses unreeled and airmasks fastened, firefighters occupied the house from 10 a.m. until almost 6 p.m. on Saturday and most of the day on Sunday, but no fire was reported.
More than 20 firefighters suited up in full uniform, and recruits from Muncie's Center Township Fire Department used the abandoned house as part of their ongoing practical training exercises, Sgt. Shane Stilts said. He has been with Muncie's Center Township Fire Department for six and a half years.
The donated house is scheduled to be demolished. Once a building is smoke-filled and used for training purposes, it is no longer livable, Stilts said.
To create smoke, non-toxic mineral oil is used with an insect-fogging machine to create a thick, white vapor. The smoke is breathable and it's lighter in color than the real thing, but it behaves much like actual smoke, Stilts said.
The smoke dissipates somewhat when water is sprayed, but there is no steam like in a real fire, Stilts said.
"This is completely controlled," he said. "But we can never recreate a real housefire. Fire has a mind of its own."
Stilts said due to zoning laws the city of Muncie would not allow the house to actually be set ablaze for the training operation. The Center Township Fire Department, which responds primarily to calls from Muncie's outskirts and suburbs, uses donated houses located in the country for real burns, explained Jeff Coy, chief of search and rescue training.
"It's almost zero visibility in there," said Coy. "It's very much like a real house fire, minus the heat."
Even in a simulated search and rescue exercise, firefighters must rely on senses other than sight and learn to work cooperatively with a partner or team just like real-fire situations, Stilts said.
"We often use thermal-imaging cameras in real housefires," Coy said. "The cameras allow us to see through the smoke to find patients when there's no visibilty, which saves time and lives."
"Rescue Randy," the department's adult-sized rescue dummy, two infant dummies and live firefighters posed as victims trapped in various rooms of the house for several search and rescue runs.
Moving throughout the building by radio directions dictated by the incident commander was also an important component of training, Stilts said. Typically the chief or first officer on the scene monitors the fire from outside and sends in the orders to rescuers inside.
Another drill the department practiced during the day was learning to properly advance different-sized hose lines throughout the house.
"It's my job to make sure these firefighters and recruits know what they're doing in a real search and rescue mission," Coy said. "The opportunity to train in a house like this doesn't come along very often, so this is a special occations for us."
The frequency of Center Township firefighters' training days depends on the availability of donated houses, Coy said.
Nikki Tracy, a student firefighter, said the department does practical training at least once a month. She participated in three weekend training operations in the last two months.
"These simulations are just part of the hands-on training process," she said. "We have 24 hours of classroom instruction and search and rescue training at the station, too."
The department conducted a similar false fire last weekend, and another will take place in Yorktown sometime in June.
"Not many people know that we're a separate fire department from Munice City Fire Department," said Coy.
Center Township Fire Department has two station locations: Station No. 1 is located at 4651 W. Woodsedge Ln. and Station No. 2 is on Mt. Pleasant Boulevard.