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Nov 10, 2017 11:13 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Hampton Bays Sixth-Graders Receive Hands-On Lesson About Fire Safety

Hampton Bays firefighters set the Palmer Dollhouse on fire. COURTESY HAMPTON BAYS FIRE DEPARTMENT.
Nov 21, 2017 2:45 PM

The dark gray smoke billowing from the structure’s second floor erupts into intense red and orange flames as soon as the window is opened, introducing oxygen. The flames then envelop the peaked roof before quickly engulfing the entire building.

Volunteers with the Hampton Bays Fire Department take a step back rather than scramble to put out the flames.

That’s because the fire is actually a controlled demonstration, and the burning building is what’s called a “Palmer Dollhouse”—a 49-inch-tall, four-compartment wooden structure that is designed to demonstrate to young students how flames spread, how firefighters properly ventilate a fire, and how responders read different kinds of smoke produced by the flames.

Using a blueprint provided by Stop Believing and Start Knowing, a group of firefighters from across the country who promote fire safety, a team of sixth-graders from the Hampton Bays Middle School’s Science and Aquarium Club spent four days constructing their own Palmer Dollhouse from oriented strand board, which is similar to plywood and used in most newly built homes.

Then, on November 2, the students watched as their hometown firefighters purposely set the structure ablaze outside their department’s main firehouse on West Montauk Highway, while also receiving important lessons about fire safety.

“It’s really up to us to learn because it can happen whenever,” said sixth-grader Emma Halsey, who helped construct the Palmer House, on Thursday, November 9.

The exercise is to show students that every second counts when a fire breaks out in a house, and that a single wrong move or bad decision can be the difference between life and death. That is why firefighters spent time teaching the students important tactics to remember if they ever find themselves trapped by flames.

Sixth-grader Ben Spellman, for example, learned that “smoke is unburned fuel,” adding that it is often the most dangerous component of a fire. He explained that the darker the smoke, the faster it will ignite—which, he added, “I thought was really cool.”

Classmate Matthew Papajohn noted that the closing of doors and windows can interrupt the path of smoke and, in turn, slow down the spread of flames. Rick Nydegger, who teaches the sixth grade and has been a Hampton Bays firefighter for 16 years, compared the closing of doors and windows to putting a lid or topper on a burning candle; they disrupt the flow of oxygen to the candle and extinguish the flame.

Matthew’s teammate, Michael Poremba, said he learned that if he’s ever trapped in a fire, he should make his way to the closest window and wait for firefighters. His classmate, Hollie McCallister, said she learned that if she is ever trapped by flames, she should enter another room and prevent smoke from entering “by stuffing a blanket in the crack in the door.” She added that she was amazed at just “how fast smoke can turn to fire.”

Mr. Nydegger noted that club members were eager to construct the dollhouse, which is named after its designer, Matt Palmer, a fire captain from Stamford, Connecticut, who redesigned the blueprints so that the structures also contain attic space and a roof vent. The additions are intended to better mimic the smoke patterns of real house fires.

Using blueprints available online at www.stopbelievingstartknowing.com, students measured and cut two sheets of oriented strand board, which is now used in the construction of roughly 70 percent of all floor, wall and roof sheathing in houses in North America, according to FamilyHandyman.com, an online source for Do-It-Yourself builders.

The eight club members used assorted power tools, such as table saws, jig saws and drills, which they later acknowledged was their favorite part of the exercise. “It’s a good fielding experience with tools in the workshop,” said sixth-grader Rieves Nydegger, Mr. Nydegger’s son.

Club members are wasting little time starting their next project. They have already begun working on their next Palmer Dollhouse, which Mr. Nydegger said will be burned sometime in the coming weeks for the Hampton Bays Explorers, junior members of the hamlet’s fire department.

“We don’t see fires like we used to,” Mr. Nydegger said, observing that the number of reported fires in Hampton Bays have been on the decline and that, today, the department responds to about six per year. “For training purposes,” he added, “sometimes we have to create them to observe them.”

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