For decades, the Julian and Brookman residence halls housed thousands of University of South Dakota students.
But now, those dormitories are providing a valuable educational experience for a new group of students — area firefighters and other first responders.
The two dorms, along with the Julian Hall addition, are being demolished to create parking for the new health sciences building.
But before the dorms and addition are razed, the three aging structures are providing a rare training site offering actual disaster scenarios.
Vermillion Fire EMS Chief Matt Callahan seized on the opportunity to work with the large, three-story complex. The empty structures are located on East Clark Street, between North Dakota Street and North Harvard Street.
“When we learned their buildings were going down, we approached the university about using the dorms for training personnel in real-life situations,” he said. “We learned both buildings were safe to be used, and they offered great opportunities for our drills and exercises.”
USD President Sheila Gestring welcomed the request.
“We’re just so pleased that our residence halls could be used in this way before they are torn down,” she said. “It’s an opportunity you don’t find very often, and we wanted to assist the Vermillion and area departments any way we could.”
Callahan noted the older dormitories provide a much different type of structure and environment than found in many of today’s buildings.
“These (Julian and Brookman) buildings were built many years ago, and they are constructed of brick and concrete. Those materials make it extremely safe for us to train in them,” he said. “They offer different opportunities than some of the newer buildings on campus.”
As older structures, the Julian and Brookman residence halls and the Julian addition aren’t made of the modern materials that are highly combustible and can spread a fire quickly, Callahan said.
As a result, the first responders can conduct drills for a longer period of time in an environment that doesn’t contain the modern toxic materials, he added. Also, the longer-lasting fires create smoke penetrating all parts of the buildings. The roofs are also made of different materials than their modern counterparts.
The training exercises, typically held Wednesday nights and Saturdays, are benefiting the entire region, Callahan said. Besides Vermillion, the participants include the Elk Point, Beresford, Wakonda, Gayville and Yankton units.
“We offered this not only for Vermillion but also for our mutual-aid partners because they work with us, and this offers tremendous training for all of us,” he said.
“We had instructors out of Sioux Falls and Aberdeen who came down and worked with us. We had some ladder company personnel. These presenters have a plethora of knowledge about these various fires, which is a huge benefit for all of us.”
The training sessions aren’t limited to firefighters, as law enforcement, emergency medical services and other first responders can learn from the experience.
As the planning fell into place, the participants saw even more possibilities, Callahan said.
“Early on, the original plan was Julian and the Julian addition. Then, we looked at some of the infrastructure and how it was tied in with Brookman Hall, so we decided it all came together,” he said.
“When you have facilities like this, you want to (train) in a safe and controlled manner. Signs are posted around the area when training is in progress. We let people know they could expect noise and smoke, but all exercises follow strict safety protocols and will not pose any danger to the public.”
The training plan focuses on one discipline at a time. A session might tackle pulling hoses for long distances or advancing up and down a ladder.
“We can breach floors, break the walls and enter rooms. We might have a metal barrel lit to simulate smoke,” he said. “We also have weighted dummies for our search-and-rescue operations. We figure 160 or 170 pounds for an adult and about 40 or 50 pounds for a child. We place them in rooms for searches where there may be smoke, and we use our air packs.”
The training drills are paused for now as USD moves into the next phase of the project, Callahan said.
“We’ve been on hold for about three weeks until things fall into place at USD with the demolition crew and their schedule,” he said. “We want to complete our training before the demolition is completed, but there is the possibility we could continue working in one-third of the site while work is continuing in other areas.”
One thing has already changed: the training site has transitioned from the summer atmosphere of a few spectators to the start of a school year with around 10,000 students and staff on campus taking part in a full range of campus classes and activities.
It’s one more adjustment the firefighters and other first responders embrace, Callahan said.
A NEW ERA
Regardless of what the future holds, the unique training experience has already been a success in many ways, the fire chief said. The joint effort has not only benefited already strong ties between USD and Vermillion authorities but also with surrounding communities and state officials.
The valuable teamwork, covering multiple situations over an extended period of time, can’t be measured, Callahan said.
“A lot of the learning comes from working together and making our response better. It makes our bond stronger when we do help each other and work together,” the fire chief said.
“At the same time, we have a lot of young firefighters in our (Vermillion) department. Our staff is about 50% college students, which is great. But it also creates a revolving door where they are on our force three or four years and then leave Vermillion. These kinds of training exercises are really important for them.”
Callahan commended USD officials not only for providing the facilities for drills but also in making the process run smoothly all the way.
“President Gestring has been fantastic to work with, and so have the other USD officials,” he said. “USD has always been a big supporter of my agency, and it means a great deal to have access to a facility like this.”
Gestring noted the value of the “town and gown” relationships. “We have a strong connection between the university and the community, and we’re working to continue and grow it even more,” she said.
USD holds the ribbon cutting and open house Thursday for its new health sciences building, signaling a new era.
The demolition of the former Julian and Brookman dormitories, while ending another era, is providing a final set of lessons for a different type of students.
And for that, Callahan and his fellow first responders are grateful.
“We’re really very pleased with how it has gone. It’s come on the heels of the pandemic, which has created its own challenges,” the fire chief said.
“I may have this kind of opportunity once in my career. We may never see this again in our lifetimes.”
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