Old Mills building used for fire training in Willmar


WILLMAR — It is not every day firefighters have the chance to train in realistic situations, but thanks to Kwik Trip, personnel from the Willmar Fire Department were able to do just that Thursday night, as they took over the old Mills car dealership building on South First Street in Willmar.

"Commercial buildings we don't get in to a lot," Willmar Fire Chief Frank Hanson said.

Kwik Trip purchased the dealership property last year and is planning on constructing a new gas station and convenience store on the site; one of three planned at various locations in Willmar. The current building is scheduled to be demolished in the near future. Knowing about the pending tear down, Hanson contacted Kwik Trip to see if it would be possible for the fire department to use the site for training.

"We approached them. They were more than willing to allow us to do it," Hanson said.

At approximately 7 p.m. Thursday members of the Willmar Fire Department arrived on scene, complete with fire trucks and dressed in all their gear — about 50 pounds additional weight. The goal was to make the scene as realistic as possible, so there was little illumination and the firefighters were using their respirators.

"In a fire, everything is black and dark," Hanson said.

The department used the dealership's empty front showroom and offices to practice search and rescue, victim recovery and firefighter rescue. As part of the training, the firefighters were able to actually break their way out of a space.

"Breaching walls instead of going through the door," Hanson said. "The real life experiences, like to break a wall and see how hard it is."

Outside, the firefighters practiced ladder placement with the department's two aerial fire trucks.

Having the chance to actually train in realistic commercial settings is a benefit to the firefighters.

"Fighting fires in a house is different than in a commercial building," Hanson said.

While the department trains regularly, it isn't the same as being able to take an axe or hammer to a wall. Hanson said some businesses have allowed them to train in their buildings, but usually just for rescue drills.

"Typically you don't break holes in people's walls," Hanson said, adding that the training Thursday went well.

"I think it was excellent." He said the firefighters worked hard and learned some new things.

Firefighters enjoy the chance to train in real-life situations, because it will help them when they come face to face with it in the field.

"They always like to do something realistic. Real is best," Hanson said.

The Willmar Fire Department has had other opportunities to train in actual commercial buildings over the past year, including the old Bethesda Health building. Hanson is hoping to use the old Mills dealership building on Litchfield Avenue in downtown Willmar as well, before Kwik Trip demolishes that building.

Fire department personnel will be back at the First Street dealership location next Thursday. Hanson had hoped to train at the site for the entire month of March, but Kwik Trip is planning on bringing the building down sooner than that.

"They hope to have that building down shortly," Hanson said.

Willmar Planning and Development Director Bruce Peterson said Kwik Trip plans to start construction on its new store on East Highway 12 in April and start work on the South First Street station in May.

"It will move pretty quick I think," Peterson said, adding the station on Litchfield Avenue downtown is still in the planning stages.