Firefighters train at Suburban Gardens

Published 8:30 am Friday, June 18, 2010

FRANKLIN—The shuttered Suburban Gardens housing complex has been the site of training by several different groups since it closed nearly three years ago. Local police forces and the military have trained there, taking advantage of the realism of its urban settings.

On Wednesday, it was our local firefighters’ turn to — literally — bring down the house.

“We’re using this as a training opportunity to train some of our newer volunteers in the department, to get them up to speed where they will be ready to perform on a day-to-day basis,” said Franklin Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Mark Carr.

As Carr and other fire officials watched closely, firefighters from the Franklin and Hunterdale departments used straw and wood pallets to set alight one of the Suburban Gardens buildings at about 8:30 p.m. Within an hour, the six apartments once administered by the Franklin Redevelopment and Housing Authority became a roaring inferno.

“This exercise is being done in conjunction with the FRHA,” Carr said. “It helps FRHA by reducing the amount of debris and the tipping fees that they would have had to pay for disposal if we just tore down the apartments.”

Carr said about 40 people participated in the exercise. He said the average volunteer had about 16 months of training, which included time in a classroom and also specialty education.

“Before you can get to this stage, a volunteer has to have 12 months in,” Carr said.

David Strozier of Black Creek, a junior firefighter with the Hunterdale Volunteer Fire Department, was one of those volunteers.

“It’s pretty fun,” the 16-year-old said while taking a break with other junior firefighters. “It’s the first live burn that I’ve been too. I need the experience.”

Strozier said that as part of the exercise, he was responsible for breaking holes in walls and the roof of the apartment building to help the fire spread quickly. He said he is thinking about possibly making a career out of firefighting.

But tonight he’s watching and learning.

“I’m hoping to see the wall of the middle building go down,” Strozier smiled, pointing at a two-story brick wall teetering on the brink of collapse.

FRHA Executive Assistant Crystal Joyner said the Suburban Gardens complex — eight apartment buildings and an office along Banks Street — were constructed in 1969 and opened to families in 1971. The last residents moved out in November 2007 after FRHA decided to close the complex.

Carr and Joyner said firefighters would burn down the remaining buildings during the month of July.

“We are going to put back single-family homes here, some of which will be for home ownership as well as some rentals,” Joyner said Wednesday. “We’re working on that plan now.”

Carr said firefighters and volunteers met before the exercise began.

“We had a safety talk and performed a walk-through,” Carr said. “We showed them what we were going to do and got them familiar with the layout of the buildings.”

He added that the most important piece of advice he gave the volunteers was, “Safety is the number one rule. Most firefighters are injured doing unsafe acts.”

Greg White, a firefighter paramedic with Franklin Station No. 1, said Wednesday’s exercise and the ones that will follow in July were essential. He started as a volunteer in December 2008 and became a career staff member in September.

“They’re absolutely important,” White said. “Fortunately, these kinds of fires don’t happen all of the time. But when they do, we want to be ready. Opportunities like this give us the chance to be ready, to keep our skills toned. We need the practice, and we need to look at the safety and teamwork aspects of it.”