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When Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas first became a firefighter on Hilton Head Island in 1981, the department had little problem finding places to train.
Whole streets could be blocked off while crews stretched out hoses and sprayed water on phantom fires. Empty parking lots and streets to take the trucks down were easy to come by.
Almost three decades later, training isn't so easy .
"The island has built up to the point that anywhere we try to go, we are inconveniencing the public, damaging their property or inconveniencing their business," Lucas said.
When the Fire and Rescue Division needs to train new staff or refresh the old one, they have to ship personnel and equipment up to Columbia or Beaufort. Occasionally they use a beach parking lot to lay hose, though that can disrupt the public. But when staff has to travel for training, it means personnel and trucks could be out of the immediate area if a fire or other emergency broke out on the island.
Next year, however, it'll be other municipalities who are shipping their personnel off to Hilton Head for training.
The town two weeks ago broke ground on a $3.8 million project to construct a fire and rescue training center, along with a new headquarters and storage yard for the Facilities Management Department on a piece of land next to the Hilton Head Island Airport.
"I'm really excited about this," said Ben Waller, battalion chief of training. "This is going to give us the ability to do a lot of minimum impact training locally that we wouldn't have been able to do here."
Bluffton-based Fraser Construction will spend the next year building the project, consisting of multiple buildings and storage areas.
The Fire and Rescue facility has been in the works for years and finally got the green light this year. The benefits to the town will be seen almost as soon as it opens next year, Lucas said. The division won't have to send new recruits to a seven-week training session in Columbia. The new facility also will allow staff to conduct daily training instead of expending resources sending firefighters and equipment to a smaller facility at the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
Other local fire departments can use the facility for training, something that will foster better relationships with other firefighters, Lucas said. Hilton Head has called on help from other fire departments from Bluffton to Burton this summer to respond to severe storms.
"Our personnel can train together to ensure when we have mutual aid responsibilities, we can be trained the same," Lucas said.
The new Facilities Management headquarters will be constructed under the same contract as the training center. Once the new building is complete, the Facilities Management department -- which maintains the town beaches and parks and oversees landscaping and litter patrol -- will be able to move out of its current home in a converted former fire station on Mathews Drive. That building will eventually be torn down and restored to wetlands, facilities manager Tripp Ritchie said.
The building will be next to the town's emergency operations center at the Fire and Rescue headquarters and the Hilton Head Island Airport, allowing it to assist as a staging area during disaster recovery.
<b>Training center amenities</b>
Some of the props have multiple uses. The drafting pit, for example, can be converted to simulate docking a fire truck in an alleyway. The extrication pit can be used to teach apparatus drivers how to do a multi-point turn.
"We've actually been able to get a lot of function in a relatively small space," Battalion Chief of Training Ben Waller said.