Sometimes, when there's fog, the black superstructure that rises out of the soybean fields in southern St. Mary's County really does look like a part of a ship's prow.
But ask any seaman who has donned a firefighter's gear and fought flashover sand fireballs inside the simulated engine room, and he or she will tell you that there's no mistaking the fire: It's real.
Since May, the Joseph Sacco Fire Fighting and Safety School, named after the former executive director of the Seafarer's International Union, has been training boatmen and unlicensed U.S. mariners how to put out shipboard fires. The school, located near Valley Lee, is part of the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training, the largest school for boatmen and unlicensed mariners. The firefighting facility, dedicated several months ago, is one of just a handful of such centers in the United States.
Union officials said only the U.S. Navy may have better firefighting training schools.
"It's state of the art and it's No. 1. There's no better preparation than this," said Bobby Dean, operational manager at the school, as he folded and coiled fire hoses after a training session.
A crew of young apprentices had just completed their requisite five-week training course and demonstrated to visitors their new skills. In teams of four, guided by Dean and other instructors, they successfully extinguished fires in the simulated ship engine room, roaring fires on barge pipes, and engine and cockpit fires inside a steel dummy helicopter.
"Shipboard, you're it," said James F. Hanson, director of the firefighting and safety school. "There's no one else to call and help you. On land you can walk out but out there in the water, there's no place to go."
At the school, located across St. George's Creek, boatmen and apprentices learn to contain fires in structures like those they would encounter aboard ship. Inside a windowless two-story building filled with staged smoke, they practice search and rescue missions, crawling on hands and knees out of a pitch-black maze.
At the damage control building, many kinds of pipes with holes gush with water, filling a recessed concrete floor, to simulate an engine room with leaking pipes. Their mission here, Hanson said, is to patch a leak or a pipe hole.
At a small indoor pool, seamen learn how to right an overturned survival raft. To create smoky fires, instructors burn vegetable oil to avoid environmental residue. Water comes from a spring-fed, quarter-acre pond nearby. It's filtered and cleaned, then recycled, Hanson said. Even the fires are clean: The school uses propane gas.
The seamen also are trained in shipboard first aid and CPR.
In the old days before this facility was available, Hanson and instructors hit the road with their students at 2 a.m., for the long drive to Earl, N.J., where they trained at a fire safety school run by the Navy.
"We used to do all the instruction for weeks and then we do one day of fire training in Earl. Then we drive back to St. Mary's," Hanson said.
That's a lot of hours on the road for one day of fire training, Hanson said. Seamen also got fire training at a University of Maryland land fire training school in College Park. But that school was not geared for seamen.
"So now we fight fires every day. So the training they get is a whole lot more practical," Hanson said.
For volunteer firefighters in St. Mary's County, the school has provided a similar advantage. In the past, volunteers like Anthony Hammett, a retired firefighter from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, had to leave the county for training. Now they go to the Joseph Sacco Fire Fighting and Safety School.
"This school stands up to everything I've been through with the U.S. Coast Guard," said Erik Nappier, 25, of Arroyo Grande, Calif., who is training to be a merchant marine.
In three weeks, Nappier and his classmates will work on ships for three months, trying out different aspects of working life on a ship one month at a time. Then they return to Paul Hall Center for additional training.
With soybeans surrounding them, do they really feel like they're aboard a ship as they aim a fire hose on an engine room fire?
"You don't get the rocking motion," joked Shannon Bonefont, 19, of New York City, the youngest in a family that has been seamen and seawomen for five generations.
"It's cool," said Keolamanloaohawaiiloa Mowat, 18, who came from Molokai in Hawaii to train as a seaman in St. Mary's County.
"If you're on ship, once you get out to sea, you're the fire department," Hanson said. That's why the firefighting and safety training is required of all merchant marines once every five years, he said.