For at least the next three days, don’t be alarmed by the smoke that appears to be billowing out of the small white house at 5311 Willard Ave. in Chevy Chase.
It’s set to be demolished in the coming weeks to make way for a rebuild. Until then, it has been donated to the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services for on-the-job training Bethesda Battalion Chief Jim Resnick said can’t really be duplicated.
“It’s a big deal for us because it means, No. 1, our folks are going to be able to do some training on or in the environment they’re going to be in instead of going up to the Training Academy,” Resnick said. “It’s much more realistic. I’d rather have my people crawling around this place than a concrete structure up in Rockville.”
Starting today and lasting until at least Wednesday Montgomery County firefighters will be crawling through the house quite a bit, tasked with mock search and rescue missions, pulling hoses and cutting holes in the roof.
It’s one of a few “acquired structures” MCFRS gets to use in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area each year, only approved after safety officers are sure the house doesn’t pose any of a long list of safety issues to firefighters. The Department must also get proof that the homeowner has cancelled insurance and all utility service to the house.
The smoke that neighbors and drivers on the busy road will see is actually not smoke, Resnick said. MCFRS will bring in a couple of smoke machines that create heavy vapor to produce a real fire-like environment, just without any fire.
“In the old days, we’d just take some furniture and some boxes of papers and throw them into some place and throw a little gasoline to get the fire going and then go fight the fire,” said Resnick, a 35-year veteran of the Department. “Times have changed.”
Even without the fire and even if trainees won’t be able to practice the real thing by hooking a hose to the fire hydrant at River Road (too much traffic, Resnick said) there’s no other way to simulate the sort of environment that many area neighborhoods provide.
Supervisors will place a mannequin somewhere in the house to simulate a search and rescue mission. They might also use a small crawl space in the basement to see how firefighters might go about rescuing a collapsed member of their team.
Resnick said MCFRS gets to use fewer than 20 acquired structures a year countywide. Besides the stringent safety requirements, home or property owners must be willing to delay whatever demolition is scheduled for one or two weeks, which can be a costly process.
MCFRS might only have the Willard Avenue house for a few days. The homeowner is trying to get the demolition contractor to push back the tear down until at least July 17. Resnick wants to get some members of the Department’s most recent recruit class in there.
“We’re asking folks to delay that by a week or two weeks. We understand in many cases, time is money,” Resnick said. “It’s a huge benefit when people are willing to go that extra mile to help us out.”
Resnick and the county distributed letters and emails about the training to neighbors last week and last weekend.
Training will happen between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. and Resnick said a few trucks and vehicles will be parked on or near the curb in front of the house to keep the road open. The noise should be no louder than a lawnmower.
And if you’re interested in watching, just ask the officer in charge.