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Curious onlookers watched firefighters battle a house fire on Ponderosa Road on Saturday.
Customers at a restaurant across Highway 17 saw the billowing smoke and line of fire trucks and wondered aloud what building was burning.
It was all a drill to give Richmond Hill and Bryan County firefighters hands-on training in putting out a fire.
All 23 of the Richmond Hill Fire Department’s firefighters — 13 full-timers and 10 volunteers — and eight Bryan County firefighters participated in the live-fire exercise at a house the property owner donated to the RHFD to practice in a real-life scenario.
“This is some invaluable training,” Richmond Hill Fire Chief Ralph Catlett said.
The firefighters were divided into five groups for the exercise. First, each group went into the shed next to the house, where a fire was started to acclimate the firefighters to the heat and smoke they would encounter inside the home.
Each group then took a turn battling a fire in a different room of the three-bedroom house. Hay bales and wooden pallets were ignited inside the home to accelerate the fire.
“They did well,” Catlett said of the firefighters. “We actually build a fire in the front of the room and it rolls back over their head, and they got to feel some heat and actually see some fire.”
Along with all the firefighters getting hands-on training, six RHFD firefighters — five volunteers and one recently hired full-timer — earned their state and national certifications. The live-fire exercise was the final step in their 5½-month program to earn Firefighter 1 certification.
“It means they have the right training and certification to do interior firefighting like we’re doing today, or to handle just about anything,” Catlett said. “You know when they get on-scene that they have the training to do whatever we need them to do.”
That was the appeal for Randy Monaco, who has been a volunteer with the RHFD since 1999. He earned his certification so he could help in any way necessary at a fire scene.
“I just thought it would be something challenging for me to do and something that I could accomplish,” Monaco said.
Also certified was Ben Edwards, a Richmond Hill High School graduate who began volunteering with the RHFD when he turned 18 in 2007. He took a break from firefighting after he went to college and considered a career in construction management, but realized he “fell in love with the fire service” and returned to it.
After studying fire science at Ogeechee Technical College, Edwards resumed volunteer firefighting in Richmond Hill a year ago. The RHFD hired him as a full-time firefighter last month.
“I love it,” Edwards said. “Being a volunteer is one thing, but being a volunteer, you can’t really run medical calls. With the city, we get a chance to run all medical calls, so you get to change up your calls.”
Along with Monaco and Edwards, Richmond Hill firefighters Jason Bass, Bobby Buchanan, Jose Cruz and Robbie Reed earned their Firefighter 1 certification.
“It gives me better knowledge of what to do in emergencies and situations and preparing myself to go in,” Monaco said. “It’s a good experience.”
The live-fire exercise was a rare opportunity for the RHFD, according to Catlett. He welcomes any donations of unwanted property for the department to use for training.
“It’s very seldom that we can get a house that was in this good of shape,” Catlett said. “If somebody has a vacant house, instead of tearing it down, just give us a call and we’ll check it out.”