Despite being given up for dead by its previous lessee, the Beaumont Fire/Rescue Training Center is on track to reopen in late July, nearly a year since heavy flooding during Hurricane Harvey forced its closure.
The Beaumont City Council voted unanimously in April to grant a 20-year lease on the 45-acre city-owned facility to Industrial Rescue Instruction Systems, Inc., a Beaumont-based company specializing in training for industrial emergency responders.
IRIS owner David Owens said the reopened school will now operate under the name Industrial Rescue Fire Training Field.
“This is an opportunity we’ve been looking for,” Owens said. “The city offered the school to us in 2002 but we weren’t big enough at the time.”
Owens, who plans to invest $1.5 million in reopening the school, said the project was largely a matter of “sentimental value” to him. He became familiar with the complex as a student and instructor before taking charge of IRIS in 1999.
“The ultimate goal for me is to be able to give this school back to the emergency response community like it was 20 years ago,” Owens said.
Founded in 1966 under the name “Flame City,” the complex includes 14 live-fire training projects, full sized simulations of the industrial units responders would confront in an emergency. Other training props available are used in training for high angle and confined space rescue and handling hazardous materials.
The epic August 2017 hurricane inundated the training field on the Neches River with water nearly seven feet deep. Soon after, the Nederland-based International Safety Training Council, operators at the site for nearly 12 years, exercised a clause in its 30-year lease allowing them to break the agreement if any event left the premises so damaged “as to be unfit for occupancy.”
Reports of that damage have been “greatly exaggerated,” Owens said. Other than replacing ruined equipment and temporary buildings used as classrooms, little was damaged that could not be set right “with a new coat of paint,” he said.
“If you toured the complex today you would have a hard time telling it was ever under water,” Owens said.
Since 2005, the fire school has operated under the name of Beaumont Emergency Fire Training complex. That name has been retained by ISTC with the intention of offering classroom emergency response instruction through its Nederland headquarters.
ISTC completed a major project to replace fuels lines to the live-fire projects on the north side of the field shortly before Harvey hit. All that work survived the storm undamaged, Owens said.
Owens plans to consolidate all IRIS training in Beaumont at the reopened fire school, tripling the number of training projects for rescue and doubling the number for hazardous materials training. Training at the reopened school will be conducted by IRIS instructors.
“IRIS conducted about 1,100 classes serving nearly 13,000 students last year alone,” Owens said. “From what I understand 250 classes rated as a big year for the Beaumont school in recent years.” Beside its Beaumont location, IRIS also operates a training facility in Baytown, TX.
Owens plans to renew the fire field’s lengthy affiliation with the Lamar Institute of Technology at Lamar University, who operated the site for many years until ISTC took charge in 2004.
His plan to quickly reopen means an aggressive schedule for his staff and contractors to meet in getting the fire field ready, Owens said.
“Fortunately, we’ve been planning this since November,” he said. “We’ve got a plan laid out. It’s actually going to come together pretty quick.”
However, the entire slate of improvements Owens said he has in mind will take as much as a year to complete.
A quick reopening leaves little time to market the school to industrial fire brigades across the country that were forced to book training elsewhere after the sudden closing.
“The initial word that went out after the storm was pretty dismal,” Owens said. “Everyone talked about millions in damage and how the school would never be what it once was. I’d say about sixty percent of that was just not true.”
Once the bad press is corrected, Owens said he intends to run the reopened fire school much the same way that IRIS has operated the last half century.
“We’ve never had a salesman,” he said. “So, you know, word of mouth is apparently working pretty well.”
Team IRIS Rescue, IRIS’ sister company, will have a big role in spreading the word. It provides personnel for on-site emergency response training both nationally and internationally. On the day of the interview, Owens had teams working at refineries in Baton Rouge, Pasadena, Port Arthur and Beaumont.
Internationally, the company has a training team on site in Kuwait and has just finished a five-year project in Angola, Owens said.
“I’ve already been contacted by teams working overseas,” Owens said. “They’re excited about utilizing the field.”
Reopening the second biggest fire school in Texas does mean direct competition with the first biggest -- Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in College Station. However, Owens said he sees his mission as concentrating on the quality of training.
“We’ve never had a desire to be the biggest company out there,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been in business for 52 years.”