Students learn with trial by fire

Maggie Fischer, sophomore in Kinesiology, takes her turn handling a fire hose on March 29, 2008. Eric Heisig

Maggie Fischer, sophomore in Kinesiology, takes her turn handling a fire hose on March 29, 2008. Eric Heisig

By Paul Biasco

Wearing full firefighter gear with an air tank on their backs and a hose in their hands, six University students crawled into a smoke-filled building to put out a fire.

The rush of heat forced one student to faint. She was dragged out by firefighters.

“I looked back and she was down,” said Colby Prunty, sophomore in LAS and Bromley Hall resident advisor.

These students are not real firefighters, but on Saturday, they trained like them.

On Saturday, about 50 student leaders from fraternities, sororities and residence halls attended “Fire Factor,” a program started in 2005 by the Champaign and Urbana fire departments in order to educate student leaders on campus about fire prevention and the seriousness of the dangers firefighters face.

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Fire Factor is the most intense program of its kind, said Tony Foster, division chief of Urbana fire and rescue services.

Administrators from the University of Wisconsin-Madison were in attendance in order to start a similar event on their campus following a fire-related death in November.

In the Champaign-Urbana community, the biggest risk of fires is at and around the University, Foster said.

“This program is very proactive,” he said.

“We want students to be forward thinking.”

The day started at 8 a.m. at the Illinois Fire Service Institute, 11 Gerty Drive, in Champaign, where students had breakfast and separated into four groups for the day.

After about 90 minutes of lectures focusing on fire statistics, the groups divided into four different stations to see what it was like to be a firefighter.

“I think this reiterated how hard (being a firefighter) is,” said Mitch Heap, junior in ACES and resident advisor in Bromley Hall.

“It makes you think about what you’re doing.”

At one station, students learned to spray a fire hose of more than 250 gallons per minute.

At a search and rescue station, students felt their way through a smoke-filled house and had to find their way to a bedroom.

“I could not see anything,” said Michael Kniery, sophomore in LAS.

“They taught us how to feel our way through the building.”

Firefighters also taught students how to correctly use fire extinguishers.

Midway through the day, there was a live demonstration to show the importance of having a sprinkler system in residences on campus.

Two mock dormitories were set up in the parking lot.

One had a sprinkler system installed, and the other did not.

A wastebasket was set on fire in each room.

In the room without the sprinkler, the fire engulfed the room within 45 seconds.

In the room with the sprinkler, the fire was contained to a small portion of the room.

“I didn’t think everything would catch fire so quickly in the room,” said Joe Gardner, freshmen in Engineering and risk manager for Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

“The sprinklers saved the entire room compared to the other room, which got entirely destroyed.”

Both Champaign and Urbana have an ordinance that will force all certified housing on campus to have a sprinkler system installed by 2012, Foster said.

“I think it has been awesome,” said Adam Heinz, sophomore in LAS and a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity.

“I noticed a lot of things here that I see in my fraternity like cigarettes on tables and unplugged fire detectors.”

Foster said he hopes the student leaders present at the event can go back to their residences and teach others about what they learned.

“It was really cool, the best part was breathing through the facemask,” Prunty said.

“I felt like Darth Vader.”