Fire training tour gives Macon-Bibb leaders a burning desire for upgrade

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Liz Fabian

Macon-Bibb County commissioners see the deteriorating fire training building no longer in use due to safety concerns at the Tinker Drive facility.

After seeing the dangerous conditions at the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department training center Tuesday, commissioners are poised to spend nearly a million dollars to make improvements.

Deteriorating metal shipping containers with large rusted out holes can no longer be used to train recruits at the Tinker Drive facility off Houston Road.

“Ladders go up to the second and third floors but we can’t walk on it,” Macon-Bibb fire training chief Reco Stephens told the local leaders after pointing out a gaping hole in the ceiling.

Lack of temperature monitoring equipment also poses problems as recruits go through live fire situations.

“I’ve seen helmets come out burned,” interim Fire Chief Shane Edwards told Mayor Lester Miller, who wanted county commissioners and other government executives to take a tour of the facility.

The county’s fire recruits currently are having to go elsewhere to get essential preparation for fighting fires, Edwards said.

“We can’t use any of it,” Edwards said as a class of recruits in turnout gear was working with an aerial ladder in the parking lot.

District 2 County Commissioner Paul Bronson reminisced about his own time as a fire recruit about 15 years ago.

“It’s definitely needed some well-needed upgrades to ensure the men and women serving this community are safe,” former firefighter Bronson said.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas, a vocal supporter of the fire department after her grandchildren were saved from a blaze in her own home, believes her colleagues will approve spending money for a new training facility.

“I think there will be a lot of support for a new one,” Lucas said at the conclusion of the first half of the tour.

Warner Robins opened its new five-story fire tower and burn building last summer. (Liz Fabian)

Miller also wanted commissioners to see the new Warner Robins Fire Training Center that opened last summer.

Warner Robins Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Bobby Wood greeted the visitors arriving in two vans and other vehicles to allow for social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re sure proud of it,” Wood said as commissioners got their first look at the five-story tower with an upper deck and three-story burn building. Miller had already been there to see what is available in modern training facilities.

International City fire training officer Lt. Calvin Huggins was eager to show off the features of the facility that include a faux elevator shaft, sprinklers on every floor, adjustable walls and safety features.

“Temperature probes monitor conditions and if anything happens we can pull people out and shut it down,” Huggins explained as the Macon-Bibb leaders filed through the metal building and up the stairs.

Macon-Bibb Mayor Lester Miller looks on as Warner Robins fire training Lt. Calvin Huggins points out varied window designs that allow firefighters to encounter different scenarios in the department’s new burn building. (Liz Fabian)

As Mayor Miller looked on from inside, Huggins stood outside demonstrating the different style of windows on the building that allow firefighters to work with varied scenarios.

“This thing is steel. It’s real heavy like real-life. They’re going to have to prop it up,” Huggins demonstrated.

Macon-Bibb Fire Lt. Garin Flanders said the ability to change the layout of the building is valuable for veteran firefighters in their continued training in blinding smoke conditions.

“By year two, I’ve already memorized it. Here, you’ll never know,” said Flanders, who has toured about two dozen similar facilities around the state and wants to be included in the selection process for a new training building for Macon-Bibb County.

Flanders, who served on Miller’s transition team, said he’s been pushing for training enhancements for years. About 10 years ago, firefighters built the Macon-Bibb facility themselves out of used shipping containers.

“It’s embarrassing to see what we have compared to this,” Commissioner Valerie Wynn said while looking at the new training center on Foy Evans Drive.

The Warner Robins fire tower and live burn simulator can be adjusted to resemble a home, hotel or apartment complex to vary training options and experiences.

“The ability to change these buildings is huge,” Huggins agreed.

Adjustable walls give training officers flexibility in creating fire simulations resembling homes, apartments or hotels. (Liz Fabian)

Warner Robins also has a smaller building that serves as a flashover simulator that Huggins said “separates those who think they want to be a firefighter from those who will be.”

It’s estimated Macon-Bibb County could build a similar facility for about $850,000.

At the conclusion of the tour, there wasn’t any doubt where the mayor and commissioners stood on whether a new Macon-Bibb training center is warranted.

“I think the general consensus is we’re going to do this,” Miller said. “Some people didn’t realize how bad it was.”

Commissioner Seth Clark even suggested adding an item to that day’s agenda to get the ball rolling.

Miller said he believes there is public safety SPLOST money that could be used or even new revenue streams to be tapped, such as using ticket revenue from new traffic cameras in school zones. The traffic monitoring proposal was approved earlier in the morning committee meeting and awaits a final vote at next week’s regular commission meeting.

Miller also mentioned the county will save money it is spending on training firefighters at other facilities.

Edwards said the new mayor has made enhancing fire training a priority.

“We’ve known for years we needed to upgrade our training facility and he kind of grabbed onto it.”

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]