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Firefighters practice swinging ax

A vacant apartment complex gives firefighters a unique opportunity to train.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 16, 2000

The empty apartment complex looks like a ghost town with its boarded windows, overgrown weeds and dead grass.

But to firefighters and deputies, the 16 vacant buildings at the complex on Tampa Road provide a fertile training ground for practicing life-saving skills.

Dozens of firefighters from Oldsmar, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, East Lake and Palm Harbor started gathering at the 123-unit complex Monday to hone their skills this week. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office SWAT team practiced at the complex last week.

Firefighters will practice using axes and chain saws to cut ventilation holes in roofs, forcing open doors using rescue tools and smashing through interior walls with fire axes.

And to do that, they will have to do some heavy damage.

"We don't get that much opportunity to practice these skills, because usually we don't have a chance to destroy a building like this," said Oldsmar fire Lt. Andy Milot, one of the instructors on Monday. "What we will be doing is not learning new skills. We are practicing existing skills. You can get rusty if you don't practice."

Firefighters and deputies were able to practice at the complex after getting permission from Wal-Mart, which purchased the complex last year. The retail giant plans to build Pinellas County's first supercenter store where the complex sits. The buildings will be torn

down when construction for the supercenter begins in October.

Firefighters and deputies were given the go-ahead to do their worst, providing they secured the buildings after they were finished, said Lee Ann Bryant, the complex's property manager.

On Monday, crews from Dunedin, East Lake, Palm Harbor and Oldsmar donned their heavy firefighting gear and practiced in the late afternoon heat.

During one of the exercises, Milot planted a device that emits loud beeps somewhere in a building which has 10 apartments. The device's loud beeps were supposed to represent cries for help from someone trapped in a burning building.

A three-man crew from Dunedin smashed through two sets of drywalls and crawled through the tiny openings as they listened for the beeps in the dark. As they broke through the final drywall, Milot gave them tips as to where to swing the ax.

"Well done, Dunedin," Milot said after the exercise. "That was the next best thing to having a real fire, wasn't it?"

Chris Thomas, one of the Dunedin firefighters, said the simulation also gave them a chance to practice teamwork since they had to maneuver in the darkened apartments and take turns swinging the ax so the others could rest.

"We need things like this to practice on," Thomas said. "Repetition makes you better so you don't make mistakes in real fires."

A week ago, about 30 county SWAT team members tore through the complex practicing hostage situations, said Cpl. Jim Wentz, administrative supervisor of the SWAT team. The deputies wore their full combat gear and retrofitted their weapons to shoot dye-filled rounds at 300 feet per second.

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