Smoke rolled, heat pulsed, and somewhere in the burning building, an alarm sounded to indicate a firefighter in trouble.
Highland volunteer firefighters Don Ronkainen and Dan Kephart crept into the building in near-complete blackness to look for their downed friend. With the help of a thermal imager, the two found Capt. Marvin Landreth wedged under a tangle of debris.
"I need some air," the captain said. With two minutes to get Landreth a new air tank, Kephart retraced his steps. A disoriented Ronkainen fell behind.
Kephart returned with an airpack and more manpower -- firefighters Jessica Carlson and Misty Francisco. They tugged at Landreth, intent on saving their captain. As they pulled and pushed, a fire engine horn blasted a "Mayday" alert. Some knew that sound meant the fire was close to flash over and kept up their rescue efforts anyway. Others, unsure what the horn meant, focused solely on pulling Landreth to safety.
Sweating in their heavy turnout gear, the firefighters managed to get their captain out. They took off their backward hoods, which had reduced their visibility to zero, to hear how the exercise went.
Welcome to boot camp, Highland style.
The pilot training program, compiled by Fire Chief Todd Carlson, began with the worst case training scenario last month.
"Your comrade's down, a fire is going, a smoky environment, a Mayday," the chief said. "How much worse can your day get?"
He hopes the extreme course, which mixes hands-on training with Powerpoint presentations, fire simulations and handouts, will build his crew's confidence and help the information stick. The course even includes quizzes.
"You will be tested on this material," Todd Carlson said.
For Kephart and Ronkainen, two of the department's newest firefighters, the exercise was eye-opening.
"You really do learn a lot by doing this," said Ronkainen, who joined the department in November.
They had been told about the Mayday signal during a class session, but never actually heard it until that night. They knew they should stick together, too. But things change in the heat of a fire.
"I kept forgetting you couldn't see anything," Kephart, who had his hood up so he could use the thermal imager, told Ronkainen.
Even Assistant Chief Ron Cairns and Capt. Sherrie Craft learned something from the exercise. They had neglected to set up a board showing who was in the building and who was on the scene.
Firefighting is more than pulling up in a big red truck and squirting water on a fire. It requires a blend of skills ranging from courage and observation to math and science. But the key ingredient, the Highland crew said, is communication.
Did the extreme training make a difference?
Landreth positioned himself under debris again as Carlson cranked up the smoke machine. Firefighters Francisco and Jessica Carlson were the first team in as the worst-case scenario was revisited -- this time with no hoods to reduce visibility. Cairns and Craft collected tags from the firefighters before they went in.
Locating Landreth, Francisco and Carlson went back for an air tank. Then, with the help of firefighters Jeremy Francisco, Ken Wilk, Ronkainen and Kephart, they pulled Landreth to safety. Although they shaved minutes off their time, the crew still lingered in the building after hearing the Mayday, determined to save Landreth.
"Marvin's got to be happy," Todd Carlson said. "Two times with their lives in danger they pulled him out."
However, he said, the second run-through was a "dramatic improvement."
The firefighters said they enjoy these hands-on experiences.
"It's tough," Ronkainen said, but "I love it."
Training sessions, Jessica Carlson said, are much better than monthly business meetings.
But with only one training session a month, it takes time to build firefighter confidence and knowledge, Todd Carlson said. He hopes the comprehensive boot camp curriculum, compiled from numerous sources, will prove to be a better training tool.
"My main goal is to instill confidence," the fire chief said. "People know what to do, but their confidence levels are not where they should be." And in a fire, he said, people can forget.