Blindfolded Riverhead firefighters trained in maneuvering through a simulated building Sunday morning at Riverhead Fire Department Headquarters. Photo: Alek Lewis

Newer members of the Riverhead Volunteer Fire Department faced a training course meant to simulate the different obstacles they’d come across during a rescue inside a burning building.

In the department’s Roanoke Avenue headquarters, around 15 members of the volunteer service, fully equipped with fire protection gear, weaved through wooden obstacles, squeezed through tight spaces and even simulated getting a wall dropped on them — all blindfolded — during the specialized course created by Long Island firefighters on Sunday morning.

Most of what is done during the course is what these recently minted firefighters already learned during their initial training classes, First Assistant Chief William Renten explained. He said that although many of the situations members tackle in the course — including navigating through wires — are rare, the course gives them necessary practice and helps build confidence and camaraderie between people in the department.

“You see everybody’s out, cheering each other on, and it builds confidence and it’s a great thing,” Renten said.

Jordan Palmer, 19, of Riverhead was the first to go through the course. She said doing the course blindfolded helps increase her senses that are necessary in incidents where firefighters can’t see due to smoke.

“It’s definitely not an easy thing, to go through trainings like these, but it’s definitely really important for us to do it,” said Palmer, who has been a volunteer for a little over a year. 

A firefighter first enters the course by crawling up stairs and onto a platform that drops them onto a mattress without any warning. The firefighter has to radio mayday — a distress signal — and report their L.U.N.A.R (location, unit, name, air supply/assignment, and resources). 

From there, the firefighter enters a crawl space divided by alternating wooden pillars, where they need to assess how much space is available between each pillar and the wall through touch alone. After passing through, they have to propel themselves through a tight tube.

They then have to crawl across skinny wood boards meant to represent horizontal beams used for framing floors and ceilings. The firefighter then has to hug the wall and push draped wires away as they move through the next hall. Once they are done with the wires, they meet two small doors that are hard to push open. The doors lead to fire-rated drywall they will have to demolish to get through to the next section.

In the next section, the firefighter has to recognize that the wood floor they are crawling on is spongy, the same feeling of a heated floor. The next two obstacles test the firefighter’s ability to navigate through tight spaces and the necessity to drag their air pack in that space as opposed to wearing it on their back, a “reduced profile” maneuver. 

After a commando crawl with their air pack off, the firefighter reaches the final stretch of the course. As they proceed forward, a wall is collapsed on them that they need to push off, before making it to the final door they need to unlock to complete the course.

“It was a lot of fun,” Palmer said after her run.

The course was created by Firehouse Training Plus, a company founded by volunteer firefighters on the East End. Owner Chip Bancroft, ex-chief of the Westhampton Beach Fire Department and current assistant chief of the Plum Island Fire Department, said he started the company after he was asked by different departments to run various trainings and drills.

“A lot of these mockups to these individual obstacles I use for [probationary members] to help them get ready for fire school. That’s what we go through there — and then I just build on it,” Bancroft said.

He said new firefighters hear a lot of stories — wires being dropped on them, floors collapsing beneath them — and until they get experience in those situations they are nervous. At the crux of it, he made the course because “I wanted us to be prepared.”

“If you’re confident, you’re gonna show up and you’re going to perform the job. And that’s all that matters. You get a better team member,” Bancroft said.

He said his company’s courses are in demand and range from everything to the basics of firefighting, mass casualty drills, to new topics like combating electric car fires. He said he was happy when RFD reached out to ask for the course. “It’s a hard-working department. They do a lot of calls.”

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com