- Associated Press - Sunday, June 4, 2017

VAN BUREN, Ark. (AP) - A two-story, abandoned building on Main Street, is a turn-of-the-last-century-style edifice. It started out as a foundry for the riverfront railroads, and will now be transformed into a training facility for the Van Buren Fire Department.

The outside isn’t going to be altered, but firefighters have already started work on the interior of a building that was erected in the early 1890s, Fire Chief Tim Arnold told the Southwest Times Record (https://bit.ly/2rpYYAS ). It may seem curious that they would choose such a vintage structure to train modern firefighters, but Chief Arnold knew what he was doing when he approached the city of Van Buren about the building.

“The city had purchased it, and they didn’t really have any plans for it,” said Arnold. “It’s perfect for the fire department. It was built in 1892, it mirrors the other buildings on Main Street, and our firefighters, that’s what they’re working to protect.”

Arnold said. As soon as you walk in, you can smell the dry woodwork that, according to Arnold, can be perfect kindling.

“It makes them more familiar with old-town Van Buren,” said Arnold. “They can get a better feel for layout, old-style construction type, and it has a basement in it.”

Older buildings and homes may not sound complicated, but imagine trying to navigate a Victorian-era home wearing 50 to 60 pounds of firefighting equipment, including a mask that impedes peripheral vision, with rooms filled with smoke, flames and almost zero interior lighting. Knowing where all the load-bearing walls and columns are could save the life of more than one firefighter.

“We won’t do any live fires in here,” said Arnold. “It’s a powder keg, a lot of old wood, but tons of scenarios where we can perform rescues.”

The building has gone through many changes over its 125-year career, at one time, housing a sporting goods store and a bail bondsman. The elevator inside has been around since the beginning, and that’s one of the first things Arnold says will be taken out. A little more than two feet of stagnant water sits at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

Once the elevator shaft has been cleared of machinery and equipment, the Fire Department will use it for rappelling exercises and high-angle rescues. The two-story building, with its tall ceilings, allows for a lot of vertical and height-adjustable rescue scenarios.

The second floor is mostly open floor space, and according to Arnold, there are no current plans to shut the space off into separate rooms. Instead, it will be treated as an attic, allowing firefighters to perform search and rescue exercises in absolute darkness, using the exposed-brick walls, ropes and hoses, and their wits to find people in the dark.

The first floor looks like a construction site, and that’s because it is. Many firefighters with the department are also electricians, drywallers and woodworkers, evidenced by the new restrooms they’ve already framed up and the freestanding wall they’ve erected.

The basement is actually the reason the building wasn’t in use when the Fire Department acquired it from the city. The musty smell of water leaks permeates the area.

But a little plaster and polish on the walls of the basement allow it to be transformed into an arena for downed victims, much like the upstairs. The exercises planned, according to Arnold, will go from something as relatively simple as finding an adult body in the middle of the room in utter darkness, to finding something as small and difficult to locate as an infant.

The basement also allows for chutes to be installed creating water well scenarios for the firefighters, giving them experience with rescuing civilians as well as their fellow firefighters from underground areas, Arnold said.

“Training is one of the things that keeps morale up,” said Arnold. “It creates a lot of camaraderie, so the firefighters are very excited about this. And because they’re working on the inside themselves, they can take extra pride in it.”

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Information from: Southwest Times Record, https://www.swtimes.com/

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