How many times have you heard: “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” When I’ve taken photos on the scene of a fire, I’ve often wondered if I have what it takes to be a firefighter. On Nov. 3, I was fortunate enough to be able to walk about six hours in the boots and gear of a firefighter and I’ll cut to the chase, it’s an eye opening experience and no, I do not have what it takes and I could not do it.
Metropolis City Attorney Rick Abell and Alderman Al Wagner and I rode with Metropolis Firefighter Chad Beaumont to the Carbondale training center for Fire Ops 101 — short for Fire Operations 101 — the bare minimum skills and training beginning firefighters learn.
This training was aimed primarily for elected officials as a chance for the people who make and control the budgets, purchases and salaries to get a first-hand opportunity to try some of the tasks firefighters do on a daily basis when responding to fires and vehicle accidents. It was the first time this training has been held this far south.
There were five evolutions — engine company; truck company; extrication and EMS scenario; forcible entry; and search and rescue.
I think it’s fair to say all three of us were excited about the chance to participate in the training, but a little bit nervous about what to expect. After a few opening remarks we got our gear on.
The gear alone takes a bit to get used to because of the weight of it.
Our first evolution was the Engine Company, which involved scaling the ladder on the truck and then going up a ladder onto a simulation of a roof to make a cut with a chainsaw.
Firefighters will take a tool with them to “sound out” the roof. If they tap the tool and it makes a noise, it’s safe to leave the ladder. If they tap the tool on the roof and it’s spongy, then the firefighter would not get onto the roof.
Rick and Al went up the ladder like old pros. I, on the other hand, had some difficulties. The ladder was extended about 30 feet in the air at an angle. My main trouble was that I couldn’t seem to climb up the back of the truck! My legs were just a little bit short and the weight from the Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) kept pulling me back. I finally stepped off the truck and took off the air pack and then was able to climb with a hand from another firefighter, onto the engine. After I got on the ladder, the height didn’t really bother me as bad as I thought it would.
The other part of that evolution was climbing a ladder with a chainsaw and making a cut on a roof to provide ventilation, which Al and Rick did.
Our next stop was extrication. Rick and Al used the battery operated JAWS of life to make cuts on a vehicle. I picked up the spreader, and it was very heavy. I had always assumed the JAWS of life was one piece of equipment. In the past it was, but now more often than not, there are cutter and a spreader tools that are considered the JAWS of Life. I chose to use the hydraulic cutter because it was slightly less heavy than the battery operated tools.
With assistance from Firefighter Micah Tolbert I made a cut at the top of the car near the seatbelts. Making the cut was pretty easy because there was not as much metal and it was thinner. Making the cut at the bottom was harder and the tool kept moving inside the car. Micah pointed out when on the scene sometimes firefighters realize one tool isn’t working and will have to switch to another tool. He handed me a reciprocal saw, and I was able to make the cut.
The third evolution was the truck company, which was a task of taking in a line of hose into a burning structure with zero visibility.
Putting on the SCBA adds even more weight to the gear. I had my mask on and it felt like it had a good seal. We entered the burning structure with Al as the nozzle man followed by Rick and me. I entered on my hands and knees, crawling and it was pitch black. Not long after I entered, my mask seemed to get a little foggy, and I was a little panicked. The next thing I heard was Firefighter Bobby Williams telling me to move to the right. I think I tried moving to the right so that he and Rick could exit the structure.
I tried to stand up at one point but my chaperone Chad Parker was telling me to get back down and follow the line up to the others. I may have scooted forward just a bit, but I realized, as my mask still seemed foggy. I just couldn’t do it.
Parker and I finally exited the structure.
The next evolution was forcible entry. The door simulates either an inward swinging or outward swinging door and firefighters demonstrated the proper techniques for gaining access into a burning home or business that has a door that is locked. There were more heavy tools involved so I stood back and watched as Al and Rick worked as a team to get the door open.
The final evolution was search and rescue and again involved going into a simulated mobile home fire to rescue a victim.
After my panic attack in the other structure and my sensitivity to heat, I opted not to even attempt that exercise. Al and Rick went in the burning structure and came out dragging a 150-pound dummy, which Rick said felt more like it was 300 pounds.
While the three of us were waiting on Beaumont, we were chatting about our experiences and I think the word we all used was intense.
The things we learned and did were what new firefighters learn during their training at the fire academy for seven weeks. The long-time firefighters there probably could handle doing all of the evolutions with one hand tied behind their backs, while us newbies were having trouble using both of our hands.
But, as we all know when there is a fire or car accident, firefighters and first responders are on the scene no matter what. More often than not, car accidents occur in the not-so-great weather conditions.
When it was time to take the gear off, quite literally it felt like I had lost a good 100 pounds. Days later while talking about my experience with 911 Director and Firefighter Keith Davis, he pointed out the gear and air packs these days are actually much lighter than they used to be.
There is also the emotional aspect of the job. Take for instance if there is a bad car accident and firefighters are doing their job trying to rescue a victim they know who is in critical condition, they have to stay focused on their job and not let their emotions get in the way.
The physical, emotional and mental stamina it takes to do the job is pretty incredible, in my humble opinion.
Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to walk in the mornings and felt like I was doing better physically, until I went through the training. I’m just glad I had been walking because, my goodness, if I hadn’t, I would’ve been much more sore and worn out than what I was.
By the end of the day, I actually felt a lot like I did the time I dressed up as Murray State University’s mascot, Dunker, for a home football game against Western Kentucky University. Every muscle was sore and I was aching. After being a mascot, I went home to my apartment in Murray, at the time, and took off the suit and picked up the list of mascot do’s and do nots. The number one item on the do list was: Do be in good physical condition.
After my day at Fire Ops 101 and I felt maybe if I’d have been 100 pounds lighter, it might’ve been a little bit easier for me.
I have always had great respect for our local firefighters, both city and county, but actually experiencing what they do first-hand, well my respect has deepened.
Everyone has their own talents and mine is definitely not fighting the fires. I will stick to staying on the sidelines and shooting the action shots and video of the brave firefighters putting their lives on the line to put out the flames.