Malia Williams got to do something on a video simulator on Saturday that she’ll have to wait a long, long time to do in real life. She got to drive a firetruck.
“My heart was pounding, and I was really scared, and I didn’t know how to work anything, and I thought I was going to crash,” said Malia, 9, a student at Zachary Elementary School and the daughter of Darian Williams, chief of fire protection for the St. George Fire Protection District.
The $250,000 simulator, complete with adjustable driver’s seat and an authentic firetruck steering wheel, pedals and dashboard, is connected to a computer and a bank of large, flat-screen TVs in place of a windshield.
The simulator was one of many features showcased at an open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony Saturday for the St. George Fire Department’s new, $3.5 million Administration and Training Complex.
The modern, two-story, gray building and a separate all-steel-and-concrete “burn” building that will be used for training purposes is located on 9 acres at 14100 Airline Highway that was donated by Kleinpeter Farms Dairy.
The 170-person department, composed of eight fire stations around the outside of Baton Rouge city limits, moved into the complex in November.
About 100 St. George Fire Department officials, their friends and family members attended the open house in the building’s spacious conference room, which is down a hall from the half-circle-shaped front foyer that features a three-story fire pole.
Offices and several training rooms line hallways displaying framed photos of firefighters from decades ago when the department was composed of all volunteers.
“This is a beautiful building; people in this district ought to be proud of it,” said state Fire Marshal Butch Browning. “Bad things happen to people every day, and it’s the people who come to their aid … it is the men and women in this fire district, who, when the call comes in, are going to respond and give more than their best — they give their all.”
Although the driving simulator was expensive, Frank Dellucky, a district fire chief, said it cost far less than a truck and could be programmed for a variety of situations. All 130 firefighters have trained on it, he added.
“It’s better for them to have a wreck here than it is to wreck a million-dollar fire truck,” Dellucky said.
Mason Dellucky, 13, a Woodlawn Middle student and Chief Dellucky’s son, also drove the simulator. When he barreled down a highway then turned into an airport access road, he crashed into a barrier, causing the TVs to spiderweb with windshield cracks.
“Let’s just say I’m not going to turn into an airport anytime soon,” Mason said with an embarrassed smile.
Down the hall was another training area of eight small rooms featuring computers connected to a main “incident command” computer. Each room represented an engine or ladder truck that could be commanded and coordinated by the on-scene captain in charge.
Tommie Walters, a district chief and training officer, said different situations require different responses, but they all follow particular protocols focusing on firefighter safety. “It keeps crew integrity together, and the less incident command changes, the better off we are,” he said.
Bart Deshotel, chief of special services, led a tour of the three-story, all-steel-and-concrete “burn” building. It was designed, he said, to mimic just about any scenario firefighters might encounter, from rescuing a person down in an elevator shaft to a residential attic fire or a fire at a commercial building such as a big-box store or a hotel or motel.
“The entire environment is controlled by us,” Deshotel said, as he showed a bank of pipes snaking through the building providing smoke or water.
The department also trains heavily in emergency medical services and first aid, said Chief Gerard Tarleton. All of the firefighters are cross-trained and certified in multiple medical areas.
“About 80 percent of what we do is medical-related,” Tarleton said. “We probably should be called St. George Medical and Fire Department.”
The open house event came as the St. George Fire Department prepared to present to voters two tax measures fire officials regard as crucial for the future.
Tarleton said the first tax would be a new 10-year, 2-mill property tax that would generate $2 million a year. The district would use the money to build a new station next to the administration building, fund the hiring of more firefighters and improve some water flows. Improved flows would increase the fire ratings from Class 2 to Class 1, which, he said, will save residents money on their insurance bills.
“We’re very efficient with taxpayers’ money,” Tarleton said. “We don’t have a large staff, and we’re not top-heavy.”
The second tax is a replacement of an expiring 10-year, 1.25-mill property tax that would generate $1.2 million, to continue operations.