Hot stuff (October 01, 2006)

by Adam Ledlow

BOND HEAD, Ont. – The sizzle of summer takes on a whole new meaning for workers at Durabody and Trailer, who, in addition to manufacturing truck bodies and trailers, have spent the last five years creating flame-friendly trailers used to train firefighters.

A conventional training method for firefighters has been the use of “burn towers,” but many cities in the US have outlawed the practice, leaving fire departments to seek out new methods.

For a number of years, firefighters were modifying 40-ft. truck trailers into training units, but the design was limited, according to Durabody’s secretary and part-owner, Randy Lemire.

Lemire, also a volunteer firefighter, says the problem with the 40-ft. units was that their square shape and corrugated steel material limited the ability to vary the scenarios trainers could use during training. But after designing an improved unit with an Aurora, Ont.-based company, Durabody may have put an end to that problem.

Besides allowing for a larger training area (the trailers are now constructed using a 53-ft. model), the floor in the interior of the “fire area” has a number of holes in it where removable walls can be inserted. By varying the placement of the walls, trainers can provide numerous scenarios in each “house” they create.

The unit is also outfitted with smoke machines and a large fire machine, which creates a backdraft in the trailer.

“They throw a fireball of about two and a half feet in diameter from one end of the trailer to the back. It hits the wall, goes down the floor and almost back to the front again, just like a backdraft would do in a large building,” explains Lemire.

Another advantage from previous training models is the collapsible room on the trailer’s roof which is used to simulate a two-storey home. The room is collapsible to keep the unit compact when mobile and comes complete with a bed and mannequin for training rescues. A removable staircase links the upper room to the main fire area.

In addition to the collapsible room on top, there is also a reclining rooftop. An aluminium top sits flat in the trailer, but when jacked up, it creates the pitch of a rooftop. The design also has a three-foot square hole on the top – covered prior to use – that trainees have to cut through with an axe or chainsaw, before jumping down into the fire area. A kitchen set-up complete with gas stove is also available so firefighters can learn to put out fires without the aid of water.

The unit also features a control room separate from the fire area, where the fire, smoke, cameras and trainees themselves can be monitored safely.

Durabody is in charge of creating the actual shell of the unit, while the fire departments add the extra features after the fact.

Since heat in the fire area can rise to a scorching 1,400 degrees, durability is important. The lifeline of the units is indefinite, according to Lemire, because it is infused with fire brick on the inside to take the heat away. The fire brick, coupled with a steel hull shell, provides its own insulation between the sheets. Besides basic wear and tear, the only other things that need replacing are the video cameras inside, the smoke machines, and the generator with propane tanks in the front.

A key advantage to Durabody’s trailers over the old burn towers is the portability of the system, says Lemire.

“With this mobile unit, they can get to cities like Los Angeles where they can go to 60 or 70 fire stations with this one unit, rather than having 60 buildings to burn,” he explains.

Durabody has not limited itself to the North America market either. Some of its trailers have made it as far as South America. The company has also constructed two units for the US Navy, which were similar to the other trailers, but with two hatches for a submarine in the roof and a ship ladder instead of a normal staircase.

“There are a number of different scenarios and versions of these trailers,” Lemire says. “We can build an airplane on a chassis, which they set on fire and take it to different airports to train the firefighters on how to handle it.”

In all, Durabody has built eight to 10 of the trailers in different configurations, with each unit taking about three months to complete.

Though the fire-proof trailers were a new addition to the Durabody lineup, not a lot of additional training was required for the staff, according to Lemire.

“A lot of people who work on these trailers come from different backgrounds and they just love something new and different where they have to think. Rather than sitting in a car factory for six or seven hours doing the same thing; with this they had to think with everything they did.”

Because constructing these training trailers takes up some of Lemire’s best manpower, Durabody can only work on one unit at a time – and even then, only at certain times of the year.

“We try to stagger (their construction) out over a slower time, but sometimes we just can’t wait,” Lemire says. “It takes up all my best men (and machine) resources. These people are quality craftsmen. They’re not just welders and fitters and mechanics – they’re thinkers.”

For more information on Durabody call 800-661-3775.

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