Simulator puts Seward on the map
Fighting fires can be a harrowing, thrilling experience even under the most carefully controlled circumstances. That’s what 12 men who work on U.S. Coast Guard ships, transport ships, processors, charter-boats and tug boats learned at the new training center in Seward last week. They were in town for a 5-day training at the Alaska Maritime Training Center, run by AVTEC, Alaska’s Institute of Technology. Two students flew in from the East Coast, and one came from Louisiana for the 2-day vessel fire fighting training. It, along with training in First-Aid and Water Safety would provide them with a Coast Guard-approved Able Seaman Certification.
AVTEC’s new simulator training facility, near the Seward Marine Industrial Center and Spring Creek Correctional Center opened to the first groups of students last year. It will serve local maritime students, the U.S. Coast Guard, and mariners who fly in or just happen to dock here and need a refresher course in vessel fire fighting in order to maintain or renew their professional licenses or certifications. The training gives the mariners first hand experience in fighting fires via a variety of scenarios including fires on a ship’s deck or below in the galley or engine room.
Decked out in brand new reflective fire fighting gear, masks, alarms and air tanks, small groups of students took turns feeling the building’s door for heat Friday afternoon. Then, at the instructor’s command, they turned the water hose on full blast and stormed into the two-chambered metal building. Quickly moving from one room to the next through the dense smoke and heat, they arrived inside the second room where they battled an intense galley stove fire.
For safety reasons, three maritime instructors observe the drills: from outside at ground level, from the second-floor balcony and from inside the building. There is an emergency escape hatch to the outside, but it hasn’t often been used during the trainings, said maritime instructor Captain Dale Butts.
Once the fire is out, they spray the water out of the building with a low-pressure hose, thereby creating vortex that also clears out the smoke within minutes.
It’s an amazing high-tech simulation. With a hand-held computer control unit, Butts demonstrates how by merely triggering various button he can instantly create, or extinguish a real fire in various parts of the building, or create or intensify smoke. The smoke is created by burning mineral oil, set off by nitrogen. It won’t hurt student’s lungs or damage the environment but does a very good job at mimicking the intense darkness of real smoke, Butts said.
For the trainees, the drills are probably the closest thing they will ever get to fighting an engine room fire — except for actually fighting a real one.
The experience was hot and disorienting, they commented afterwards as they cooled themselves on a nearby snow bank.
“It’s hot and you don’t really see nothing,” said Jay Cannon, who works aboard a tugboat on the Kuskokwim river. “It was intense and very uncomfortable. Not at all like I thought it would be like from sitting in the classroom,” added Cory Burke, a younger mariner. Although it was reassuring to know that it was only a simulation, it was an adrenaline rush nonetheless, he said.
“All you see is the condensation on our masks and orange glow of the fire,” said Frank Bihlman. He owns a recreational sailboat, and was glad to be learning something so practical. “It’s all applicable to any venue, whether it’s on a boat, or just putting out a fire on land.”
AVTEC’s maritime instructors clearly are proud of their new simulator building, and glad to have traded the used, patched-up firefighting gear donated from area fire departments for gleaming new, more reliable equipment. In prior years, they had to drive bus loads of AVTEC students on a journey of more than two hours along the Kenai Peninsula to train on a fire simulator that was designed for aircraft fires, not boat fires, Butts said. He’s glad not to have to make that particular trip any more.
The fire fighting building across Resurrection Bay, along with AVTEC’s new Full Mission Ship Bridge navigation simulators at the First Lake building near downtown, really puts Seward on the map for mariners, Butts said. Seward will be the place to go in all of Alaska, and Western United States for mariners seeking to acquire these two types of specialized training and certification from a single location. AVTEC also is marketing a 4-hour mini-course at its new facility to vessel crews already in area.
“It’s really fast and, we’re not trying to to teach them everything about fire. We’re taking the fire crews that already know about fire, and allowing them to have a much better experience for a fire drill that month,” Butts said.