Iconic fire training center getting long-overdue facelift


It sounds silly: spend $650,000 to remodel and upgrade a facility that, since 1978, has been the scene of thousands of fires, explosions and other ear-splitting and pulse-pounding chaos.

But the North Net Training Center, known for its signature six-story concrete tower across from Angel Stadium at Orangewood Avenue and the 57 Freeway, is getting just that.

The remodel, officials say, is long overdue for a fire training facility whose offices and classrooms are as dated as a John Travolta disco outfit.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is to make this a much nicer learning environment,”says Tom Wills, a Captain and current Training Officer at Anaheim Fire & Rescue, and facility manager of North Net.

The facility’s iconic, partially charred tower, inside of which blazes reaching 1,000 degrees regularly are ignited to teach fire behavior and ventilation techniques, and where firefighters practice confined-space rescue, rappelling and other vital skills, was spruced up earlier this year to the tune of $120,000.

7-18 old North Net

In mid-August, work will begin on the heart of the remodel: repainting the exterior of the office and classroom portion of the training facility, modernizing its interior and reconfiguring some rooms, including a simulation area where firefighters learn how to deal with everything from a high-rise inferno to a plane crash or train derailment.

The training center also will be rewired with modern IT capabilities as part of the remodel, whose cost will be covered by a capital improvement fund.

“We had this money sitting in a fund so we thought, ‘Why not improve some capital?’”Wills said.

For Wills, facility manager of North Net for 1 1/2 years, the upgrades can’t come soon enough.

“The first day I started here in January 2013,”said the 38-year firefighting veteran, “there was no water, and the power wasn’t working. My first three months here, there was a repair guy here almost every day.”

North Net is the training center for firefighters in Anaheim, Garden Grove and Orange, although it’s also used by other fire agencies and a variety of organizations that keep it humming every day and evening. The center is one of three full-scale, brick-and-mortar fire-training centers in Orange County, along with Central Net in Huntington Beach —a near-exact replica of Anaheim’s —and the facility at Orange County Fire Authority headquarters on Jamboree Road in northeast Irvine.

In the past, the 3.8-acre facility has functioned as a coordination center for major events such as the 2002 World Series. Fire engines also use the facility to test their pumps.

But the center’s main purpose is for fire and other emergency-response training.

On the afternoon when Behind the Badge visited Wills, a member of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department bomb squad held court in the multipurpose room, teaching a class on dealing with homemade explosives. That morning, a hazmat refresher course had been held in the same room, one of the center’s four classrooms.

In his ground-floor office tucked away in the corner of the main building, Wills was working on the curriculum for a class on tactics and strategy in fighting fires in high rises —one of several training courses held every quarter for more than 500 firefighters.7-18 North Net Old black and white photo

The discussion quickly turned to the fires and explosions that regularly crackle and boom in the main yard where the tower stands —paradise for the teenage boy in all of us.

“Right in the middle of Orange County, we get to blow things up, set fires and tear apart cars,”Wills said.

Most of these blazes are ignited inside one of the gray concrete tower’s several “Burn Rooms,”which explains why flames rarely can be seen by passing motorists on the 57 freeway or streets near the Big A. Each Burn Room is fitted with high-temperature lining on the ceiling and walls.

But the smoke can be seen —which explains why Wills has to alert Metro Net Fire Communications Center before any blazes are set so dispatchers can tell the inevitable flood of concerned callers not to worry, the smoke you see is a training exercise.

The remodel, which will include new red exterior plant to replace blue, is scheduled to be completed in January 2015.

No word yet on whether the dragster-like flames painted on the mailbox outside the facility will remain —but here’s guessing they will.