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Article updated: 6/7/2013 6:29 PM

Vacant building provides rare training opportunity

Countryside firefighters maneuver through a smoke filled building during search and rescue training Friday morning at the former Pier 1 Imports building in Vernon Hills.

Countryside firefighters maneuver through a smoke filled building during search and rescue training Friday morning at the former Pier 1 Imports building in Vernon Hills.


Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

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The emergency dispatch Friday morning was for a fire with a victim inside the building in a busy commercial area in Vernon Hills.

Thick smoke filled the free-standing structure and poured out as responders made their way inside. Look for a second person, they were told in an updated dispatch.


Help for the Countryside Fire Protection District quickly arrived from Libertyville and Lincolnshire/Riverwoods departments. The "fire" was extinguished and the "victims" were located -- one hidden in the back of the store and another near the cash registers in front -- and rescued.

Not that there was any imminent danger because there was no actual blaze. The man-made smoke was nontoxic, like that used in staged productions. The victims were training dummies.

"It makes it as real as we can without the heat," said Tony DeRose, division chief and training officer for Countryside, who helped create the scenario at the former Pier 1 Imports store at 701 Milwaukee Ave. The building will be demolished to make way for a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

DeRose deemed the effort a success, although there would be a more detailed review. The main benefit was firefighters had a rare chance to test their training and gauge their effectiveness inside a commercial building.

"This is what we do," DeRose said. "It's exactly how it would be, as simulated as you can get."

An incident command post was established to assign duties, such as search and rescue, forcible entry or ventilation.

Countryside Fire Chief Jeff Steingart contacted Chick-fil-A and made arrangements for the training exercise. Firefighters will be back Sunday and Tuesday in what is regarded as a rare opportunity.

"A big part of what we're practicing too, is the incident command system," he said. "We used to get more opportunities to actually burn houses but with things becoming developed, it gets harder and harder. We simulate where we can."

Lt. Mike Dovel said the hands-on opportunity was valuable.

"It adds realism to help us in the command van allocate resources," he said.

Chick-fil-A rarely allows a fire department to conduct such training before an existing building is demolished, company spokeswoman Sheila Turner said. A signed agreement is required and construction begins as soon as possible after a property is acquired, she added.

Construction is scheduled to begin June 17, with a grand opening on Oct. 31. Pier 1 is moving elsewhere in the center.

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