No PFAS: What environmentally friendly fire training looks like on Cape Cod
Cape Cod Times
August 22, 2023
WEST YARMOUTH — A grid of metal rebar sticks up from the concrete foundations of a new structure emerging on Buck Island Road.
The new, eco-friendly — and health-friendly — project has been in the planning stages since the former Barnstable County Fire and Rescue Training Academy in Hyannis was permanently shuttered in 2019. That closure resulted from chemical contamination at the site, due to the longtime use of toxic firefighting foam containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. These so-called “forever chemicals” have long been used by fire, military and airport installations around the country.
The unfolding information about long-term environmental and public health problems posed by these chemicals has sparked a host of changes to how firefighter training is conducted and how fires are fought on Cape Cod.
The new fire training facility, which is scheduled for completion in spring 2024, is designed to resemble a two-story residence and will contain training props that allow firefighters to train for challenges like deploying ladders, gaining entry to a locked building in a fire emergency, fighting various types of smoke and flames, structural collapse and search and rescue.
In addition, the use of hazardous materials and training methods that were formerly in use will be replaced by new methods and materials designed to be non-hazardous to firefighters and the environment. Various portions of the training will be added as funding becomes available.
Barnstable County firefighter academy will use non-toxic, environmentally-safe training materials
Stephen Coan is a firefighting consultant for Barnstable County and the former longtime state fire marshal and director of the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy. He’s working with the county to implement new methods of firefighter training. The facility, he said, “will use no ignition (source) or fuel that is considered hazardous to the environment.” No straw or wood pallets will be consumed in the “fire,” which will be generated and piped in by a propane system.
Coan compared the method to that of “a barbecue grill in your backyard, with a propane tank and a clean burner system.” It can be ignited, and extinguished, using remotely operated controls.
“Even the smoke is artificial,” he said, like the smoke used on stage in theater productions, resembling dense smoke at a real fire but posing no hazard to firefighters.
Less live fire means less water used. Water runoff can be contained, and won’t contain harmful chemicals, according to Sandwich Fire Chief John Burke, who also heads up the Barnstable County Fire Chiefs Association, another seminal group in the re-thinking of how fires are fought on Cape Cod.
Cape Cod firefighter training equipment goes mobile
Besides inaugurating plans for the new training building, planning groups began floating ideas for mobile training.
Trailers and props could be transported between fire stations, allowing fire departments to customize training operations that best fit their individual department needs. Several mobile training units were obtained, which Coan called “turnkey operations,” that could move between various departments according to their own schedules.
Burke described several of the “props” now in use, such as those for car fires, “roof” and “ceiling” props and a live fire burn trailer. The car fire instruction, for instance, trains for two very different challenges: tactics for fighting fires in gasoline-powered engines and those in electric cars.
According to Beth Albert, Barnstable’s county administrator, the county’s ongoing program “supports firefighter training and … works to build curriculum around these props,” using “trained instructors deployed to different locations on Cape.”
The curriculum and instructors, she said, meet all national fire training standards and can individually address the needs of local fire departments.
New Barnstable County fire training academy paid for with FEMA money, county matching funds
The Buck Island Road building has been paid for by Barnstable County, through a $700,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, in addition to a 10% match by the county, with the project supported by the Yarmouth Board of Selectmen.
After the initial phase is completed, responsibility for funding and management passes to the town of Yarmouth and to individual Cape fire departments through the Cape and Islands Fire Chiefs Association. In addition, according to Burke and Coan, money also has been earmarked annually to help support the training of Barnstable County firefighters, through the ongoing advocacy of state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, and members of the state legislature.
In Massachusetts, firefighter training mandates a 10-week training course at the Massachusetts Fire Training Academy, leading to certification. Once firefighters are on the job, each fire department determines the type and level of ongoing training appropriate for its needs.
“Fire training never ends,” Coan said. “Every day is a training day.”