Bluffton Fire Chief John Thompson beamed with pride Wednesday during a ceremony at the Sun City Woodshop to recognize a group of volunteers who are building wooden replicas of some of Bluffton's most densely populated areas.
"These models are perfect for training purposes," Chief Thompson said. "We are going to use these to develop dozens of real life exercises that will help save lives."
Project manager Bill Walker said Sun City Railroaders Club has been working since May to construct the new 1:87, or HO, scale models representing various scenes in the Bluffton community.
"So far we have built Walmart and Sam's Club Plaza, Okatie Food Lion Plaza and The Bluffton Promenade," Walker said.
Additional models are planned for Tanger Outlets One and Two, Bluffton schools, a high-density neighborhood such as The Farm, a mobile home park, and a multi-floor hotel.
It's normally very difficult and expensive to simulate emergency tactical situations, but club members are volunteering their time and charging the Town only for the reimbursement cost of their materials.
Project volunteers who were recognized include Walker, Henry Becker, Jon Davis, Bill Kronimus, Bert Pagano, Ray Renneberg, Burt Roberts and Bill Standen.
The group has visited potential locations, researched various types of buildings and discussed logistics with firemen about reality-based training.
Since May, firemen from every firehouse in Bluffton have scoured the region to identify potential problem areas in their district, then provided the model makers with Google Earth images of the areas in town that provide the biggest hazards.
"The Bluffton Promenade is a prime example," Chief Thompson said. "The buildings are too close together, there is very little parking and access to buildings is bad because fire engines cannot make some of the tight turns."
Chief Thompson reminded the audience that his department has been growing at a staggering pace to try to keep up with the rapid population growth of the town.
"We have a lot of smart, young officers coming up through the ranks that simply don't have the real life experience of problem solving during emergency situations," he said. "I can already think of dozens of scenarios where we can use these new models to help us plan for emergencies almost anywhere in town."
Chris Katon is a travel columnist and features writer specializing in hospitality, travel and tourism.