New firefighters discover that fighting a real fire is different from what they imagined.

“Most people say it’s hotter than they expected,” says Hays Fire Chief Ryan Hagans. “You can still feel the heat, even through the suits.”

Training for the real thing will be closer at hand now, with the arrival Wednesday of a new three-story drill tower at the old Frank Stremel Softball Fields on Old U.S. Highway 40 and Chetolah Creek.

Constructed of 40-foot steel shipping containers on a 100-foot by 125-foot concrete pad, the tower has doors, walls, walkways and stairs. Eventually it may even have some furniture, said Hagans.

The Hays Fire Department’s 22 uniformed firefighters will use the tower to practice technical skills, including search and rescue, advancing fire hose, and rappelling with ropes while carrying heavy gear and a couple hundred pounds of fire hose.

The tower has three 40-foot steel shipping containers on the first floor, two on the second floor and two 20-foot containers on the third floor. It was manufactured, delivered and installed by Illinois-based American Fire Training Systems Inc.

The department may start training on the tower as early as next week, Hagans said. Now the firefighters won’t have to practice in the parking lot behind the fire station at 1507 Main, or by wrapping hose around parked cars, on playground equipment in the city’s parks, or whatever else they can think of.

“You just use your imagination. And now we don’t have to hope there’s an old house being torn down somewhere to practice on,” Hagans said. “This is huge, not only for us, but for any fire department in the area. It gives us a dedicated space to train.”

A separate live burn building will sit next to the tower. The 40-foot steel container will simulate the interior of a building, but with movable walls so the configuration can be changed.

“There’s some shelving on one end, and we can fill it with hay and scrap wood and set it on fire,” Hagans said.

The biggest portion of funding for the tower came from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, with a $272,000 grant. The fire department spent $50,000 from its budget. The City of Hays is contributing $63,000 for the waterline and hydrants.