With seconds ticking away, Henderson firefighter Justin Shull pounds against the drywall with his ax in an effort to escape the room he’s found himself trapped in. Having cleared a tight, three-foot by one-foot opening, Shull grasps his oxygen tank in one hand as he crawls through effortlessly.
Fortunately there’s no fire, and Shull is able to calmly rise to his feet after the training drill and begin removing his equipment.
Thanks to a partnership between local emergency agencies and Henderson Independent School District, local firefighters like Shull are able to perform these kinds of simulated emergencies in a controlled but realistic environment at the former Montgomery Elementary School campus.
The Montgomery campus was vacated in 2009. Since then the district has auctioned off what salvageable raw materials remain and performed asbestos abatement in preparation for the demolition scheduled to begin on Monday. The school was closed after the opening of Wylie Elementary. The last students attending the campus were second-graders.
Some of the campus will be preserved, including the gymnasium where Henderson High School’s state championship-winning wrestling team practices and a building that includes six classrooms. But the rest will be razed to the ground in just a few days.
HFD Capt. Jeff Stoddard was leading a group of firefighters in self-rescue “breaching walls” techniques Wednesday. Stoddard explained there are times when, due to the destructive nature of fires, a firefighter might be trapped in an enclosed area without access to a doorway or window.
“Using the ax that we carry with us, the firefighter will cut a hole in the sheetrock between the studs in order to find a means of escape,” he said. “Because of the heat and the smoke, the firefighter will usually perform this technique on his knees […] chopping through the wall with his ax, then carrying his pack through the opening.”
Area emergency agencies are expected to perform more of these types of operations through the weekend.
HFD Chief Rusty Chote said his firefighters are thrilled to have had use of the campus this week.
“We’re very appreciative and grateful to Henderson ISD for allowing us to to utilize this facility while it still stands,” he said. “The skills our firefighters are able to gain from being able to perform these techniques in such a realistic setting will greatly benefit how well our department will be able to respond in the event that these types of emergencies arise […] it’s been an invaluable resource to us during this week and we really can’t thank HISD enough.”
HISD communication director Stacey Sullivan said the district was more than happy to work with local emergency agencies in this endeavor.
“This is just one example of the great cooperation between the school district and the various city and county entities,” she said. “HISD is very fortunate to be a part of a community in which the school and the community work together for the betterment of all the citizens of Henderson and Rusk County.”