Meadville Tribune

November 10, 2013

Donated house serves as training ground for region's firefighters

By Keith Gushard
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — “This is as real as it gets,” Chad Gustafson said taking a break from practicing cutting holes in roofs and knocking other holes in walls.

To those who used just a casual glance, it may have looked as if Gustafson was part of organized vandalism at a Grove Street home, not a firefighter training exercise.

He was one of 30 men and women firefighters from around the region taking part in an all-day, state-certified training course.

The class spent Saturday learning advanced firefighter techniques for ventilation, search and rescue operations in a course sponsored by Lake Erie F.O.O.L.S., (Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society), an international firemen’s fraternity.

“This is a huge advantage,” Gustafson said of training on an actual home rather than a training tower. “A training tower is not disposable. Here, you’re up on actual roofs using a saw.”

The three-story home at 899 Grove St., made of brick and wood, is owned by Doug and Rebecca Sekerski, who live next door to the site.

Sekerski said he and his wife purchased the home — the former residence and office of the late Dr. William Holland Jr., an opthamologist, with the intent to tear it down for additional yard for their property.

“When we bought it, it had been on the market seven years,” Sekerski said. “We were not going to kid ourselves that we were going to be able to rent it out. It’s beautiful, but it needed updates.”

Sekerski said the cost of taxes and utilities for the large home cost around $1,000 a month alone.

“No one was going to rent it for that amount,” Sekerski said.

The home was stripped of usable items and the family decided to donate its use as a practice facility for the day, Sekerski said.

“A lot of times when we get a house to practice on, it’s abandoned, dilapidated and falling down,” said Sekerski, who has been a volunteer fireman with Cochranton for many years and a member of the Lake Erie chapter of F.O.O.L.S..

“It’s real life experience — you’ve got shingled roofs, flat roofs, old construction, new construction,” Sekerski said. “It’s not like your typical fire school, where they lay a tile on the ground and say ‘Cut it — that’s the roof.’ You’re three stories up and you’re white-knuckled up there.”

Both instructors and students agreed.

“This is the best training the guys could ever have,” Richard Shay, an instructor from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire. “This is an actual house.  You’ve got multiple rooms. The guys have to look around. It’s invaluable to help them.”

Peter Bohrer, a two-year volunteer fireman with Perry Hi-Way Hose Co. in Summit Township outside of Erie, liked the realism.

 “It’s training, but it’s much more realistic than the fire towers,” Bohrer said. “It’s a home that was actually lived in.”

“Training at the fire schools is good, but it just isn’t the same as being in an actual house,” Gustafson said. “This is an opportunity that only happens once every few years. When the class came up, I jumped at it.”

While the training session wraps up today, what’s left of the home will be demolished later this month, Sekerski said.

Once the site is cleared, the lot that is approximately 60 feet by 300 feet will be used for additional yard space and a garden, Sekerski said.

According to the website for the Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society (F.O.O.L.S.), the organization was started in 1995 by a group of Central Florida firemen. The group, known as the Founding F.O.O.L.S., had a passion for not only the camaraderie and brotherhood that is forged between firefighters, but the rich tradition and heritage of the fire service, according to the website. Since 1995, the group has grown to more than 7,000 with chapters around the world.

The F.O.O.L.S. provide training opportunities to firefighters worldwide. The group also organizes benefits to assist not only firefighters and their families in need, but communities as well.

The Leatherhead is a term used for a firefighter who used the leather helmet for protection. It is considered an international sign of a firefighter.


Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at