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The Art of Reading Smoke

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Structure fires, throughout the nation, have declined dramatically since the 1990's.

That's a positive statistic.

But for firefighters, fewer structure fires means fewer "on the job training" opportunities. Which, in turn, contributes to a troubling statistic: Incidents where firefighters are caught in a structure collapse, and other serious hazards, are up 32 percent.

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More than 120 firefighters from throughout the region heard that message Oct. 25 in Perham, at a full day workshop hosted by the Perham Volunteer Fire Department.

The "fewer fires-less firefighting experience" dilemma was part of the focus of the workshop presented by 25-year firefighting veteran Dave Dodson. A former battalion chief and safety officer, Dodson is an instructor at Alexandria Technical College.

"I go back to the 1970's and 80's--when there were a lot of fires," said Dodson at the Perham High School Auditorium session. "In the 90's, the fires were almost shut down."

All those firefighters from the 70's and 80's are either retired, or have moved into more desk or administrative capacities--leaving almost an entire generation of firefighters with relatively little direct experience with structure fires.

"I don't think we've passed the baton very well," said Dodson, who spent most of his career "on the street" as he described it.

Most firefighters are experienced-based learners, he said, but there is much less direct, hands-on structure fire experience.

"We haven't changed how we train and teach you," said Dodson, adding that much of what was learned 20 years ago is no longer applicable.

The "wisdom" passed on by older firefighters is still valid and very important--such as a calm approach to attacking a fire, basic intuitions, methodical steps under pressure and knowing not to get too far ahead, said Dodson.

Dodson's training session is titled "The Art of Reading Smoke."

"You need to look at the smoke on arrival. As soon as you put on the parking brake, you need to figure out what the fire will do in a few minutes--not what it is doing when you arrive," he said.

By accurately reading the smoke, firefighters can plan attack points and other tactics.

In the past, firefighters tended to use the sensation of heat as a warning sign, said Dodson. "We need to see and anticipate the heat--before you feel it."

Firefighters from many departments attended the workshop. Among those represented were Dent, New York Mills, Frazee, Ottertail, Verndale and many others from the region.

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