FREEVILLE, NY – Off of Route 13 in Freeville sits an abandoned two-story house set for demolition. Before it comes down, though, it’s serving a unique purpose as a training ground for local firefighters and other emergency responders.

Storage Squad, a Cornell-born business that provides easy storage for students, has plans to develop the property, but won’t be moving forward for a time. They reached out to Roy Rizzo, Fire Chief of the Varna Volunteer Fire Company, to see if it could be of any use to the firefighters.

Rizzo, a 45-year veteran of firefighting, knew it would be an excellent training opportunity. Rizzo said he hasn’t had access to this kind of training site for 20 years. Once all the necessary permits were filed, Rizzo began to organize training sessions every Thursday.

He reached out to other fire departments including those from Dryden, Etna and Freeville, as well as other emergency response organizations, including Tompkins Search and Rescue and the SWAT team. Trainers from other Fire Departments also volunteered their time.

Rizzo says that that having this kind of resource is a huge benefit to training because they provide a different environment that is more representative of a real life situation.

“Once you know the training towers, it’s no longer an exercise for you. When we go to people’s houses, they’re not all the same,” says Rizzo.

“Being able to practice on a real building that is representative of a lot of the buildings in our county is super helpful,” says Kimberly Michaels, a Varna firefighter. “It also brings our different departments together, we get to know each other because often we call each other for help and then we know how to work together.”

Michaels, who has been with the Varna Fire Company for around a year, explained that trainings at the house have focused on interior firefighting techniques and search and rescue operations.

She detailed one training exercise: “One night, we were out here and they filled the house with non-toxic smoke. We all put on our air and we learned techniques for getting the hose up and through the building — because that thing is heavy when it’s filled with water — and getting it up staircases and around corners. And they had put life size dummies, true to weight, inside the building as well. So we had search and rescue teams going in and their job was to find and help the victims out. And then there was also people trying to find the fire — which was a traffic cone with a flashlight in it.”

Although it’s not a sure thing, Michaels says that before the house is finally demolished later this summer, they are planning what will surely be a useful training exercise: a controlled burn of the structure.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.