It was a winter day and a one-story house was on fire in the Town of Poughkeepsie.
Chris Quinby and his partner were tasked with cutting a hole in the roof of the breezeway between the house and the garage to allow the fire and gasses to vent, and then getting down as fast as possible.
Abruptly, fire shot up through the roof at the pair of Arlington firefighters. Quinby, then in his early 30s, said his partner attempted to use a saw to cut into the structure when his foot pierced the roof.
“Smoke shot up around him and I grabbed him by his jacket and yanked him back,” Quinby said. “It was one of those moments we looked at each other, we said, ’Alright, let’s finish quick,’ and we did what we had to do and got off the roof as fast as possible.”
Arlington firefighters train at the former Poughkeepsie Inn
He joked the ventilation hole was the shape of where his partner used to be. The act of venting a roof when there’s a fire below is one of the most dangerous tasks a firefighter does in their career, according to Arlington Fire Chief Bill Steenbergh.
That’s why the department works with developers in the town to access buildings before they are demolished. There, they can train in realistic settings before they are put in such dangerous situations.
On Monday morning, Arlington firefighters were on top of the roof of one of the buildings that used to encompass the Poughkeepsie Inn, training in proper venting techniques. The department over the next two weeks will use the buildings to train in a variety of tasks, including hoseline advancement, search and rescue, firefighter rescue and forcible entry.
It won’t be the only agency making use of the Route 9 property. The Town of Poughkeepsie Police Department’s SWAT team will be on-site on Tuesday to conduct door breaching and room entry training, according to department spokesman Capt. Michael O’Dowd.
Arlington Fire District, from left Tyler Pettit, Chief William Steenbergh and Chris Quinby discuss aspects of their training at the former Poughkeepsie Inn on February 17, 2020. (Photo: Patrick Oehler, Patrick Oehler/Poughkeepsie Journal)
“Because it’s a building slated for demolition, we have the ability to actually break doors and force open things,” Steenbergh said, ”and do things that we are not able to do as part of routine training. That’s why getting these acquired structures are so important for our training program.”
The 17.45-acre property just south of the City of Poughkeepsie’s southern border has sat vacant for the last two years. And decades operating as a budget motel were evident in the condition of its buildings even before it closed.
Plans call for the property to be developed into a retail and hotel project called the South Road Crossing.
Demolition of the buildings, some of which stood for 80 years, will begin at the site this week, beginning with the two-story building in back of the property. That’s according to Kevin Langan, a leasing executive with Cameron Poughkeepsie and partner in the project.
Realistic training in surreal atmosphere
Although the property at 2625 South Road is along one of the busiest roads in Dutchess County, the feel of the campus itself is reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic movie set.
Windows were broken. Some beds were made while others were stacked on top of each other. Televisions sat untouched, as did detergent bottles in an abandoned laundry room.
Most rooms were intact, though the items inside were tossed around like the site of a rager. Other rooms appeared is if they have been lived in after the closing of the motel. Some rooms were covered in mold as water appeared to be dripping from the ceiling.
From takeout containers in the trash cans, to phone books dated 2008, and a memorial pamphlet of someone who passed away in May 2013, many rooms seemed frozen in a moment of the past.
Steenbergh said the fire department has worked with the developer for a couple years to ensure they’d be able to train at the site. Arlington is the only fire district between Albany and southern Westchester that has someone whose job it is to review plans submitted to the town planning board, he said, noting Vassar College has also previously worked with the department.
Live fire training won’t be happening at the motel, as Steenbergh said this kind of training is allowed at approved training facilities.
“Years ago, you used to be able to take buildings like this and you could burn acquired structures,” Steenbergh said. “It’s become more and more difficult because of environmental concerns … It’s a live fire and there were injuries and actually some live fires in other parts of the state where firefighters died in training evolutions.”
The last time the fire department had this opportunity was in one of the buildings that was redeveloped to be part of the Eastdale Village project in the Town of Poughkeepsie. Although fire departments have the ability to train at the county training center, Steenberghsaid they have to be careful about hoses leaking water as well as not breaking doors, windows and walls.
Training from beginning to end
Firefighter Tyler Pettit, who graduated from the fire academy in July, joined eight other firefighters on one of the former motel’s buildings to vent the roof on Monday.
“It’s the best job in the world,” the 29-year-old said. “Every day we get to train and to get an acquired structure like this to do training is a million times better than anything we could ask for.”
Pettit said he has yet to respond to a structure fire in which he has vented a roof. The firefighters used electric saws and steel poker tools to do so Monday. Each of the men were careful to not cut through the roof rafter and poked the roof to ensure there weren’t soft spots where they may fall through.
“You have the chance of slipping and falling off the roof,” Pettit said. “We take great measures to make sure everyone is safe and make sure we have a spotter to not fall off. It’s definitely one of the dangers of the job.”
After nearly 21 years with the department, Quinby said he was excited about the hands-on training. When asked how many acquired buildings he did realistic training with since 1999, he said “not enough.”
Quinby said, “Acquired structures are the best way that we can really see how things are built and really hone our skills because training props, the first time you do it it’s new but the second time it’s just a training prop. In 21 years, we’ve probably had maybe a dozen acquired structures.”
Quinby is retiring and was scheduled to finish his last 24-hour shift with the department at 7 a.m. Tuesday.
“My entire career I have lived for the training,” he said. “I love doing the work, so it’s actually fitting for me on my last day to be out here with hands-on tools doing work. It’s a great opportunity with all the new guys on the job to impart some more knowledge, help them along in their career and give a little bit of whatever I have left.”
What will replace the Inn?
The proposed development at the Poughkeepsie Inn site includes five buildings that would include 17,442 square feet of retail space, a restaurant with a drive-thru, a bank and a five-story, 120-room hotel.
The eastern portion of the property was bought from Cameron Poughkeepsie by a developer located in North Dakota called Brandt Hospitality Group.
“They’ll be building a Hilton Garden Inn,” Langan said, adding it will be will be open “sometime in 2021.”
Demolition is expected to be completed within 30 days.
The structures planned to be located along Route 9 are expected to be completed by the end of this year or early 2021, Langan said.
He added that Cameron Poughkeepsie signed a lease with one company and a few leases that are being finalized. However, they were not able to disclose who they are as of Monday. He did, however, take the moment to shoot down internet rumors that Trader Joe’s could be among the tenants.
“We’re very excited to be investing in the Hudson Valley, this is a great area,” Langan said. “The Town of Poughkeepsie has been great. We’re very excited to get this thing going and tear down what is not nice property and do something beautiful here for the people.”