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Group of Merced firefighters travel to Salt Lake City for rare training

It's so real, down to the sound of popping tires, one would think an airplane had actually crashed and burned. The airplane and the simulation aren't real but Merced city firefighters get to experience conditions like a big plane crash.

Eleven Merced firefighters took part in annual two-day recertification drills at the Salt Lake City Airport at a $14 million training facility which trains students in all the situations they would likely encounter if a commercial aircraft were to crash.

"It gets a little exciting," Capt. Manuel Berumen said. "You have fire all around you. We practice pushing flames away in confined spaces with hose lines. There is a lot of information to absorb in a couple of days. The main objective is to go over tactics fighting fire and how to work as a team."

Berumen has 30 years with the fire department and is stationed at the department's Falcon Way station near Merced Municipal Airport. He said Merced has been fortunate so far to avoid major airplane crashes; there have been alerts where an airplane's landing gear lights malfunctioned but no major incidents.

Battalion Chief Don Long said the simulated aircraft mockup, which resembles a Boeing 737, sits on a large pit of black rock. Propane burners are placed throughout the area and take the place of more-polluting jet fuel.

Long said Merced firefighters have been going to the Utah training facility for about six years. The Federal Aviation Administration requires annual certification for firefighters since the city has a commercial airport.

Trainers are able to set fire to different sections of the plane, including inside the fuselage where firefighters must maneuver hoses and their full "turnout" uniforms in intense heat.

Long said fuel spills usually are the biggest concerns in aircraft fires. Firefighters train to extinguish engine fires, using state-of-the-art crash trucks.

Engineer Casey Wilson has attend the Salt Lake City training classes twice. He has worked for the Merced department for 2½ years, at the Falcon Way station.

"It's great training," Wilson said. "It's something we don't get to do too often. It's definitely a great learning experience for all of us."

Wilson said it's amazing how much heat is trapped inside an aircraft cockpit and the difficulty of maneuvering along cramped aisleways wearing heavy uniforms and breathing apparatus.

"It's amazing what we can do with the equipment provided us," Wilson said. "These guys are informed about new techniques in working with aircraft and it's an advantage for us."

Berumen said many years ago a commercial airplane practicing "touch and go" landings did a belly flop and fortunately there was no fire. This is Berumen's third time attending the Utah training.

The exercise appears so realistic the sound of tires popping makes you jump, he said.

"There are alerts at various times; we've been fortunate so far."

All of the training sessions are videotaped for later viewing, Long said. Classrooms and hands-on training encompasses operating the crash rigs. Twenty-two Merced firefighters are sent to twice-yearly training sessions.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or