Everyday heroes ready for the worst

For a burning business in Prince William County, survival may reside in a firefighter’s notebook.

Each of the Prince William County Fire and Rescue suppression units either water pumper trucks or ladder towers carries a commercial building preplan that gives a basic schematic of the business’ floor plan, utility providers and water sources.

When a large structure is on fire, every second counts.

Especially when there are 90 people inside who often need help with even the most basic human functions.

Such is the case at Summerville at Prince William, an adult assisted-living facility that cares for elderly men and women with various medical conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease.

And so, the home at 3940 Prince William Parkway was an ideal place for the fire department to test its plans, as it did with a mock kitchen fire Wednesday afternoon.

“This is what we call a high-hazard occupancy,” Battalion Chief Steve Strawderman said of Summerville. “We’re kind of theorizing what potentially could happen in a worst-case scenario.”

The scenario was this: simultaneously douse a fire in the three-story building’s basement while evacuating Alzheimer’s patients and searching for and treating any additional victims.

Capt. Steven Kersse of Station 13, who did much of the event’s planning, led the firefighters from three engine companies, a ladder tower truck and an ambulance through the building before beginning the simulation.

“Several weeks ago, Capt. Kersse struck up a dialogue with the administration at Summerville,” Strawderman said. “The partnership we have with businesses gives us maximum effectiveness with evacuations and medical assistance for those who need it most.”

Renee Woolfolk, Summerville’s executive director, agreed. In addition to monthly fire drills, the home’s administration holds unannounced evacuations every year.

“[The training exercise] gives us the opportunity to work with the rescue workers to ensure the safety of those who live here,” Woolfolk said. “So far, so good.”

After all of the planning and preparation, the actual simulation took minutes, which is the hope in any actual fire.

Firefighters converged on the “burning” building from multiple entrances, with firefighters from stations 14 and 18 responsible for attacking the fire.

“If this was an actual fire, we’d be crawling on the floor right now,” Technician I James Cervino of Engine 18 said while standing and holding a hose in the building’s kitchen. “It’ll be a lot hotter and there’d be low visibility.”

Which is a good thing, the firefighters all agreed, considering that the longer a fire burns, the more it spreads and endangers those still inside.

“It went well,” Strawderman said after the exercise had ended. “There were no blatant breakdowns in communication and coordination. And we all had feedback; anything we can preplan and expect makes an actual fire more manageable.”

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