Burning down the house

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 29, 2004

MURFREESBORO – &uot;We’ve got fire,&uot; a voice resonated after heaving a bucket of diesel fuel onto a pile of burning hay atop a wooden pallet in the corner of the bedroom.

Under normal circumstances a person guilty of starting a fire like that would be arrested and thrown in jail on charges of arson, but not this time.

Fully suited from helmet to boots with fire retardant uniforms, Murfreesboro Fire Chief Billy Deans, Assistant Chief Bryant Cooke and 10 of the department’s dedicated volunteer firefighters gathered together this past Saturday to take turns lighting each other’s fire.

In a weekend session of &uot;Burnin’ Down the House,&uot; this practice exercise was designed to simulate the conditions of such an occurrence to give firefighters a realistic opportunity to test their instincts and abilities in a controlled environment.

Every time they crouch down below that thick cloud of hot, oppressive smoke, they are reminded that the skills and training received in exercises like this will one day save a house or perhaps even someone’s life.

Accompanied by a select few in the Chowan College Criminal Justice Program, developed by retired Navy veteran, former New York City Fire Fighter and current Professor Fred Mercilliot, students were allowed to perform a hands on arson investigation as part of their education.

As the fire was ignited in the once scorched home, donated to the Murfreesboro Fire Department for the purpose of fire training, adrenaline began to surge through the firefighters’ veins like a wave of rushing water.

With eyes held captive to the spontaneous dance of the untamed element, they waited in a hunched over stance. Frozen in anticipation, they watched the fire’s mesmerizing performance through masks half fogged up and wet with condensation from drawing air out of the 30-pound tanks strapped to their backs and fixed their eyes on the golden arms of the blaze as it reached upward in a wild search for life.

Poised as a soldier holding firm to his weapon in the midst of battle, they gripped tightly to their hoses and prepared for the showdown.

Dancing on borrowed time, the fire climbed the walls and appeared to roll across the ceiling, pushing her boundaries until her bluff was called and, in the blink of an eye, her music was silenced by the forceful spray of water striking her core, forcing her to submit and yield her temporary victory to the brave men and women who tamed her wild fury.

But unfortunately, fires seldom schedule themselves conveniently in the planner books of our lives, making the fire training an essential part of firefighter readiness, should there be an unwelcome disaster.

&uot;This is a great opportunity for the students to experience, the first hand aspect of fire investigation,&uot; said Mercilliot who previously investigated terrorist bombings and testified as an expert witness in New York.

&uot;The program is very helpful to students going into the various fields like the FBI, CIA and Secret Service because these are the kind of jobs they will be applying for when they graduate.&uot;

Although this is the first training session set up this semester, Mercilliot expressed his delight at being able to expose his students to the various aspects of criminal justice.

&uot;We have a tremendous working relationship between the college and the police department,&uot; he said. &uot;Greg Parker, the former Chief of Chowan Campus Security set this whole thing up and it’s great.&uot;

Pointing at the smoke and flames he explained, &uot;One of the good things about being a part of this training is that the students can see how a fire behaves,&uot; he said with focused intensity. &uot;A fire reads like a book; first you have to detect the point of origin, then you can branch out from there and put the rest of the pieces together.&uot;

Mercilliot also commented about the benefits to having firefighters participate in this type of training saying, &uot;These guys and gals spend a lot of time training and receive no financial compensation for their efforts. What they do, they do because they care. They work hard to protect us and they deserve to be recognized for their dedicated contributions to serving others. They are a great asset to the community and we appreciate them.&uot;

Mercilliot spent six years with the NYFD as a firefighter and nine years as an arson investigator. He also taught at the University of New Haven Connecticut and served as an adjunct professor at John Jay College in NYC before becoming a professor at Chowan.

Firefighters participating in the training exercise were: Chief Deans, Assistant Chief Cooke, Captain Lee Thompson, Jeremy Brittenham, James Carraway, Wayne Conner, Cheryl Davis, Timmy Dixon, Chris Kirk, Danny Overton and Dave Jacobs along with Mike Patterson of the Murfreesboro Police Department.