HOUSTON – County officials and local fire departments think it’s time for the area’s training center burn building to go up in smoke.

A tour of the Washington County Fire Academy near Houston last week showed that the cement block building used for live burning exercises is deteriorating after about 15 years of use, and might be unsafe for training.

Now, the county commissioners and area fire departments are considering whether to fix the current burn building and expand it, or demolish it and construct a new one for training.

“The burn building has so many years of burning in it, the concrete is starting to fall,” North Strabane fire Chief Mark Grimm said. “We haven’t had any injuries in it, but that is a concern as the building continues to deteriorate. We want to get it fixed and get it up to current standards.”

fire training

Courtesy of Canonsburg Volunteer Fire Department

Canonsburg firefighters are pictured training at the Washington County Fire Academy’s “burn building” in this 2020 photo.

County Commissioners Diana Irey Vaughan and Nick Sherman toured the center with several fire chiefs Wednesday and are now exploring whether there are federal funds or private grants to build a new burn building. There also are discussions about erecting a separate two-story “maze building” with hallways and rooms that can be used for police training tactics or firefighting exercises navigating through smoke.

“They have limited capacity and ability to train there because the building is falling apart,” Sherman said. “This is the very beginning stages of something we’d like to move very quickly on. It won’t be a huge price tag for taxpayers, but it could be a moneymaker.”

The cost of a new burn building or renovations was not immediately know, although Sherman suggested fire crews from outside Washington County could travel to the fire academy for training if it’s built, which would lead to a new revenue stream.

Grimm, who is also the public safety director for North Strabane, is confident a new training building at the fire academy would attract departments from across the region.

“It’s an investment that will be well worth it because there are a lot of people who use that facility,” said Grimm, who was on the tour with the commissioners last week. “But we feel like if we all put our heads together and come up with a plan, not only emergency personnel in Washington County but other agencies outside the county will use it as well.”

While Grimm said some training is still conducted in the current burn building, many local fire departments are traveling elsewhere to perform exercises. He said some crews are going to training centers in Allegheny and Butler counties, while his department just visited Indiana County for a session.

“There’s only so much you can do in that building,” Grimm said. “It needs updating.”