Firefighters beat wrecking ball

Publication: Vail Daily; Date: 09/03/2004

By Scott N. Miller

VAIL - Most buildings set for a date with the wrecking ball come down pretty quickly. Before the Sonnenalp Swiss Hotel in Vail comes down, though, it's being picked at in the name of public safety.

For the past few weeks, Vail firefighters have been training in the old Swiss Hotel, which is being razed this summer and fall to make way for a new complex of condominiums and shops. Firefighters have been given free reign to train in the building, which, in essence, means busting up the place.

Last week, crews were "roof training," learning the proper way to punch holes in the top of a structure to vent fire from the rooms below.

Vail Firefighters Matt Holmes
and Roxy Ligrani tear wood shingles
off the top of the Swiss Haus in Vail
Wednesday to cut a ventilation hole duirng
a training exercise. The Swiss Haus is
being taken torn down to make room for
new condo's and shops.
Bret Hartman/Vail Daily

The process isn't as simple as it sounds. After tearing off shingles, firefighters have to find the right spot to cut, avoiding roof supports.

The department's "resident" firefighters - academy graduates who serve mostly unpaid internships in exchange for housing - hacked and chopped determinedly at the roof, creating gaping holes.

The holes in the roof match the ones in the walls on the inside of the hotel, where firefighters have learned the finer points of hotel construction by tearing big chunks of it apart.

Wandering through the hallways of the hotel, debris is scattered, glass is shattered, and doors have been knocked off their hinges. It looks like vandalism on steroids.

"This is really a great opportunity for us," resident firefighter Roxy Ligrani said. "We can practice different scenarios and learn about different kinds of construction."

And hotels, especially ones of the Swiss Hotel's caliber, are built differently. Drywall is thicker, with soundproofing insulation between rooms.

"You can usually kick through drywall in a house. This stuff is a lot harder to get through," Fire Technician Jim Jones said, giving a wall a solid shot with his boot to demonstrate.

Jones, who has been running the training sessions, said the opportunity to actually kick, cut and smash around a building is a rare experience for the younger firefighters and veterans.

"Without these structures to work in, it can take years to get the knowledge these kids are getting here," Jones said. The training is good for veterans, too, Jones said, since they get to practice their own skills, as well as explain the finer points of big-building firefighting to their younger peers.

And there are plenty of fine points to learn, Jones said. Running a hose through a hallway sounds simple, but there's a lot to know.

Debris can hang up or puncture a hose, Jones said. Knowing that, and knowing to always move debris to just one side of a hall is something that can come up in classrooms, but until someone actually tries toting hose through a building, they don't really understand why the little things are important, Jones said.

Firefighters - and sometimes their bosses - also need to know what works and what doesn't out at a fire scene.

"I'd rather break equipment in training than find out it doesn't work at an incident," Vail Fire Chief John Gulick said.

Between the Swiss Hotel and the Vail Village Inn, Vail's firefighters have had the opportunity to learn the tricks of big building fires before they have to fight one. It's a special chance to learn, Jones said.

"We're just really grateful to the owners of those buildings they let us do this," Jones said.