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Smoke without fire

WHITE CITY — The smoke spread quickly, smothering the White City home's second story in a matter of minutes.

Firefighter Robert Miller wasn't worried. Calm and collected, he stood among the clouds of smoke as they wafted from a series of machines mounted in several upstairs rooms. This was simulated smoke, more of a fog that didn't hinder breathing. In some areas, heat lamps meant to simulate flames glowed red, the light refracting in the "smoke" and looking pretty close to the real thing.

"It's probably some of the closest you can get without actually setting the house on fire," Miller said.

It's a scene Rogue Valley fire agencies will come to know well. The home at 8383 Agate Road is Jackson County Fire District 3's Regional Simulation House training center, a two-story, 4,400-square-foot structure with not only simulated smoke and heat, but movable interior wall panels, multiple stairwells and additional rooms intended for emergency services and law enforcement training. Fire District 3 spokeswoman Ashley Lara said police, Department of Human Services and utility companies also can use the home to run training scenarios relevant to their fields.

"The possibilities are pretty much endless," Lara said.

A $250,000 grant from the Oregon State Fire Marshal and Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards & Training paid for the building, and construction crews from White City-based S&B James Construction broke ground on it in January. Oregon DPSST director Eriks Gabliks said there is a similar training facility in Salem, but that the department hopes to have more around the state so firefighters and other emergency responders don't have to travel as far.

"It's about four hours to get from here to Salem. It's probably a little bit longer if you're driving a fire truck," Gabliks said. "And that's not realistic, because that takes the men and women away from the local communities."

Miller said the structure's movable walls will help keep firefighters on their toes when training to work in unfamiliar environments that are filled with visibility-limiting smoke.

"Coming in and having to guess where you're going, that's pretty realistic," he said. "Coming out on the training ground, you kind of tend to get used to what you've been playing with for the last few years. The fact that this can be changed so quickly and so easily and without you knowing it, that makes it the most realistic."

The house also lends more realism to Rogue Community College students training for their EMS certification.

"This house gives us the ability to set up a realistic scenario," said Gary Heigel, chair for RCC's emergency services department. "We can have a patient in a chair. The paramedics, the EMTs, they'll come in and hook up all their equipment, assess the patient, figure out what's going on, and then have to make decisions about how best to get them out of the house, into the ambulance, transport them to wherever they're going to go. It just takes it to a level of realism that makes it really effective for our training."

—Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Jackson County Fire District 3 firefighter Robert Miller tests out a smoke machine in the agency's new simulation training house on Tuesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch