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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Through practice, kids learn how to survive a fire

Walworth County Firefighters' Association President Paul Yakowenko in the Survive Alive Smoke House. Dan Plutchak photo

By Dan Plutchak/Associate Editor

Paul Yakowenko has spent nearly 20 years teaching a lesson he hopes his pupils will never use.

As president of the Walworth County Firefighters Association, Yakowenko is one of the driving forces behind the Survive Alive Fire Safety Smoke House project, a high-tech re-creation of a typical home where kids learn how to survive a fire.
"One of our goals is that we save the life of at least one kid," Yakowenko said. He may never know if it will, but that's fine with him.

Most kids know little about what to do in a fire, and Yakowenko says the result can be devastating.

To promote National Fire Safety Week, which begins today, Yakowenko gave me tour of the smoke house last week.

Sitting in the parking lot of the Linn Fire Station, the house appears similar to a small mobile home that can be towed to demonstrations anywhere in the area.

The smoke house recently was at the Walworth County Fair, and Yakowenko says it's interesting to see how surprised parents are to learn how little their children know about fire safety.

For example, Yakowenko says many kids don't know their own address.

Others don't know how to open their bedroom window.

Many parents have purchased rollout emergency ladders, but their kids don't know how to use them.

Candles have surpassed smoking as the No. 1 cause of house fires.

That's why the smokehouse is such a great teacher. It gives kids experience in a real-world, stressful and unpredictable situation.

That's why the smoke house is such a great teacher. It gives kids experience in a real-world, stressful and unpredictable situation.

Inside the smoke house is a living room, a bedroom downstairs and a bedroom upstairs.

Volunteer firefighters, who run the demonstrations, begin with a presentation about fire safety, and explain how to handle various situations.

But the demonstrations drive home the point.

In an era of iPods and video games, kids need to see it to believe it, Yakowenko says. "In our world today, kids are hands-on," he said.

Part of the presentation is a dramatic lesson on how fast a fire can spread.

On one side of the trailer is the burn room, equipped with fireproof walls, a sprinkler system and a floor-to-ceiling observation window.

A curtain hangs from the ceiling, and as the kids watch, it begins to burn.

A timer above the window counts off the seconds, and the kids watch as the curtain is rapidly consumed by flames.

Think you have a lot of time to deal with a fire in your home? The demonstration illustrates that you don't. That's why firefighters emphasize the importance of getting out.

Next, students get a chance to test their own reactions in a fire.

They enter one of two rooms, similar to their bedrooms at home. The rooms are equipped with windows and smoke alarms, and at the signal of the operator in the control room, theatrical smoke begins to pour in through a series of vents.

As smoke fills the room, the alarms begin to scream and the kids work through the drills they were taught earlier.

Some kids panic, some cry, Yakowenko says, but now is the time to do it, rather than in a real emergency.

The kids are taught to touch the door with the back of their hand. (The doors can be electronically heated.) If it's warm, they should look to escape through the window.

Why the back of their hands? Because if the door is hot and they burn the palm of their hand, they won't be able to crawl to safety.

Once everyone is out, the kids use a working telephone to practice calling 911.

That's followed by a review of what they've been through.

Yakowenko says association members haven't counted how many students have gone through the smoke house since it was first used in 2004, but nearly everyone comes out impressed.

Yakowenko said the idea for the current smoke house was hatched in 2002. The previous house had fallen into disrepair, and area fire departments couldn't agree on how to replace it.

Yakowenko decided the firefighters association could take on the project, and launched a fundraising drive.

Hat in hand - actually, fire boot in hand - firefighters visited community events and told people what they wanted to do. They started collecting money and began visiting businesses to ask for donations. The project was more than one business could take on, but if each business chipped in what they could, Yakowenko thought, they'd keep moving closer to their goal.

Doors came from a lumber company, a vendor donated the fireplace, sheet metal came from another local company and the frame came from an abandoned mobile home donated by the owner of a mobile-home park.

(A list of contributors can be found online at

They ended up raising $65,000 in cash for things that couldn't be donated, like electronics.

Much of the work was done over two years at Badger High School by students in the woodworking, metal and automotive classes.

Yakowenko isn't shy about promoting those who have donated because this project is his passion.

His paying job is as a correctional training officer with the Walworth County Sheriff's Department motivates him.

"In my real job, I see where people are going with their lives. I joined the fire service in 1990 to help people who are less fortunate than myself," Yakowenko said. "I want to leave the world a little better off than I found it."

And promoting the smoke house is his way of fulfilling that mission.

For questions about the smoke house, or to find out how to schedule a presentation, call Yakowenko at (262) 279-6391. There is a fee for the presentation, which provides needed income for maintenance and repairs.


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