In the old days -- roughly until spring 1989 -- Loudoun County firefighters and emergency medical technicians got their training at whichever fire and rescue station was taking its turn as host.
That meant the would-be firefighters, who require 75 hours of training before they can be certified as volunteers, and EMTs, who need a minimum of 135 hours, put in their class time to the tune of wailing sirens and the good-natured kibitzing of volunteers who had long since passed the test.
But that's all changing. On Sunday, the county's $6.1 million Fire and Rescue Training Center will be dedicated. The grand opening, with the public welcome, will be from 1 to 4 p.m. at 16600 Courage Ct., off Sycolin Road in Leesburg.
Now training takes place in what William Goldfeder, director of the county Department of Fire and Rescue Services, describes as a state-of-the-art facility that was 10 years in planning and five years under construction.
Besides classrooms, a 200-seat auditorium and work rooms with video equipment and storage space, the center includes its own "structural-fire training building" -- a "burn building," as it is called in the trade -- where trainees can practice putting out real blazes.
The 5,200-square-foot, $1.5 million burn building is built of concrete block and lined with a fireproof, silica-based metal that comes in sheets like drywall. The building is divided into three parts simulating three typical structures: a single-family home, a three-story apartment and a commercial storefront.
Wooden pallets are stacked inside in A-shaped bonfires to simulate "the flame and heat you'd find in an average, working fire, so people can get in and acutally work the nozzle" on a fire hose, Assistant Director W. Keith Brower Jr. said. The building sits on a concrete pad where other kinds of training -- car fires and rescues from crashed vehicles -- can be carried out safely.
Traditionally, hands-on training has been carried out in old buildings ready to be torn down. But those fires are harder to control, and an old house has only one life to give for its county. The burn building can be burned over and over again.
The burn building was the most difficult part of the center's construction, Brower said. Although it was to have been the first structure completed on the 25-acre site, it was the last, opening this year after a substitute contractor was hired to finish installing the fireproof lining and the windows and doors.
Trainees who see action in the burn building will repair to the administration building, stopping first in what Brower calls the "facility conservation room." The more mundane label on its door is the "mudroom," where trainees can clean their equipment and themselves (there are two locker rooms, one for men and one for women) before proceeding "to the pretty carpets upstairs," he said.
The center also includes the $2 million Emergency Communications Center, which consolidates dispatching operations for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Fire and Rescue Services.
Before the computerized emergency system was inaugurated in June, sheriff's dispatchers answered calls in a small room over the jail, and rescue operators worked in the Jackson Professional Building several blocks away.
Still, the center is not complete. Brower said plans, and sufficient space, remain for a five- to six-story tower near the burn building where trainees can learn to use ladders and perform the rescues required in high-rise fires; a hazardous-materials training area; a multipurpose building that could serve as a garage and indoor training site; and a trench to give trainees practice in dealing with construction-site cave-ins.
The new center is home to the department's 60 paid employees and supports the 450 active volunteers who fight fires and ride ambulances in Loudoun County. Because Loudoun is a regional fire-and-rescue center, it also may open its training facilities to volunteers from neighboring jurisdictions.
Since Loudoun once used burn buildings in Fairfax and Alexandria to train its recruits, Brower said, "we have a lot of paying back to do."