College fire center needs a new brain

Firefighter cadets train at Clatsop Community College.

Several hundred professional firefighters, mariners and students go through Clatsop Community College’s Fire Response and Research Center each year to practice fighting propane-fueled, simulated blazes in a series of rooms resembling parts of a ship. The flames are controlled by central computers and sensors that respond to the students’ techniques, extinguishing in the face of proper firefighting and flaring back up after missteps.

The college is preparing to spend nearly $70,000 to replace the aging brains of the fire simulator.

Kurt Donaldson, the college’s fire science instructor, said that while the building is only through about one-third of its expected 50-year lifespan, the computers that run the simulator are outdated and in need of replacement. If one part of the computer goes down, the entire building can stop working, a safety feature to prevent accidents, he said.

“It’s electronics in a damp, wet, oily, smoky space, and so eventually those things are going to start wearing down,” he said.

The fire simulator is still operational. The college hopes to have the new computers installed and ready to go by fall term.

Donaldson estimates between 600 and 900 students come through the fire research center each year. Along with students, the college trains members of the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, local fire agencies and large regional employers such as the Georgia-Pacific Wauna Mill.

The three-story simulator includes engine rooms, bunks, a kitchen and other parts of a ship rigged with burn props. Opened in 2002, it was paid for by a grant from the Office of Naval Research.

Along with the central computer, Donaldson said, the center will eventually need new gas sensors monitoring the air quality in the building and helping protect against accidents.

The funding for the fire center’s new computers will come from the college’s plant fund, said JoAnn Zahn, the college’s vice president of finance and operations. Plant funds commonly pay for the construction, renovation and acquisition of capital assets. The college is also planning to use the fund, which includes about $2.5 million, to purchase the Marine and Environmental Research and Training Station next school year and upgrade the campuswide computer system. The college is working on how to plan for these purchases in advance, Zahn said.

“We want everyone to start thinking in that way across the campus,” College President Christopher Breitmeyer said.


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