Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Over the weekend, 30 firefighters from Mountain Valley Fire Department, Cowee Fire Department, Franklin Fire Department, Cullasaja Fire Department, Clarks Chapel Fire Department and Savannah Fire Department participated in hands-on training in Cowee. Lead by Benji Johnson, fire/rescue director/coordinator/instructor for Southwestern Community College’s Pubic Safety Training Center. 

“The main areas of focus for the training were Fire Control (extinguishing the fire) and VEIS (Vent Enter Isolate Search),” said Johnson. “VEIS is an advanced technique where a crew of two to three firefighters enter a certain section of a structure, without a hose line, isolate the room by shutting a door and performing a rapid search then exiting the area before the situation escalates. Fires are now faster and hotter than ever so this is a firefighter’s best chance of recovering a possible victim.” 

The house where the training was located was a house donated by a family in Macon County. In addition to being used for fire training, the same location has been utilized by law enforcement for specialized training for the county’s Special Response Team. 

“While the house looked almost perfect from the outside there were several structural issues with the house and it was no longer habitable,” said Johnson. “The property owners were familiar with the Acquired Structure Program and reached out to Southwestern Community College to start the paperwork process for the burn.”

According to Johnson, the training which was conducted this weekend is beneficial because it’s the most realistic training possible. 

“With the blackout conditions, the high heat and rooms fully engulfed, it gave firefighters the most realistic training possible,” he said. 

While the training conducted over the weekend is the most realistic possible, it isn’t done all that frequently. 

“This training is hit or miss,” said Johnson. “There is a very lengthy paperwork side that must be completed before the state even considers granting a permit to burn a house for training. We primarily burn in Jackson, Swain, and Macon counties. Some years we may only burn two houses in a year for all three counties while some years we have one live burn a month.” 

Johnson noted that the process to set up the live demonstration training is a lengthy process, which makes it difficult at times. 

“We cannot just walk out and burn a house,” he said. “Usually a property owner contacts my office and says they have a house that they would like to donate and we’ll set up a site visit and meeting with the property owner to inspect the house and make sure that it is suitable for the program. If the structure looks like a good candidate the homeowner has to order an inspection that it is safe to burn. Once the removal is complete we receive a packet from the removal company stating the structure is asbestos free.” 

Johnson said they then make floor plans, structure measurements and exposures to submit a packet to the NC Department of Health and Human Services requesting to burn a structure. 

“If they approve the permit, we will receive a time line to burn the house and a permit,” said Johnson. “Once we receive the permit we must submit a packet to the NC Air Quality and they must also approve the burn for the time frame. After approval from Air Quality we must contact the NC Office of State Fire Marshal to inform them and get the final approval for the burn. Not just any fire instructor can lead this training event, there must be a Qualified Live Burn Instructor, that has special training in this type of situation. This is a very complex event that requires coordination with multiple agencies. After many months of paperwork, emails and phone calls these firefighters came out and trained in extreme environments so that when the next alarm goes off they have better odds of not only saving a life but of going home at the end of the day, and that in itself is worth all the time that goes into a training event such as this.” 

For more information about the Fire Rescue Program contact Benji Johnson at 828-306-7045.