Turns out, I’m exactly as strong as I look.
This was all too apparent for the ever-so-patient members of the Hantsport Fire Department who babysat me as I attempted to do what they do on a regular basis during a two-hour training session the evening of Nov. 26.
It was a time of great self-discovery from lesson one: an introduction to bunker gear.
When Captain Paul Maynard, a training officer with the department, invited me to suit up for a breathing apparatus training session, I assumed I’d be asked to try walking around the well-lit fire hall wearing a face mask and air tank.
No problem, I thought.
I thought wrong.
“We’re going to treat this like an actual fire,” Maynard began, while leading me into the truck bay, where the bunker gear hangs in open lockers. “In our first scenario you’re going to go over into a smokehouse. The smoke is not real smoke — it’s non-toxic — and we’re going to have you search for a victim.”
This preamble caught me off guard, but I was still feeling pretty confident until the words “live fire” came out of Maynard’s mouth as he described the second scenario the firefighters would face with me in tow.
The voice inside my head muttered something along the lines of “oh, shoot” once I realized what was on the agenda, but there was an eager crowd of volunteer firefighters ready for whatever Maynard had planned, and they looked like honest people who would carry an unconscious reporter out of a smoke-filled training building should she pass out in their presence, so I decided against faking stomach cramps and bailing on the assignment.
Firefighters are expected to don their bunker gear in less than 90 seconds.
It took me 30 minutes — and three sets of hands.
I’d like to be able to say the 50-pound bunker gear equals about half of my weight, but that’d be an outright lie, so I’ll just say it was really heavy.
The air tank, which is worn like a backpack and fastened in place with a waist strap, weighs about 30 pounds. The boots feel like the soles are made of concrete, and the breathing mask fits as snug as a suction cup to protect responders from smoke inhalation.
The fire drill started with a mock call for service to the department’s training grounds in town.
With a lot of guidance, I managed to climb into the back of a fire engine with three young firefighters tasked with helping me search a smoke-filled building once we reached our destination.
We grabbed flashlights from the truck once we arrived on scene, formulated a quick game plan, checked the entrance of the building for flamesand crawled inside.
Inside the smokehouse, I was second in line, crawling closely behind Adam Johnston. My colleagues used their flashlights to see beyond a foot in front of them and shouted out significant observations as we crept our way through the abyss, while I kept my light locked on Johnston’s foot, which quickly became my main source of direction — sanity — in the dark.
The visibility was so poor it was impossible to see furniture, or even a staircase, without the spotlights. It didn’t take long for my body to feel as though I had travelled for miles on my hands and knees with a knapsack full of textbooks on my back — and then we found the stairs.
I was already struggling to adapt to the breathing apparatus, and wondering if I could faint while connected to a constant supply of oxygen, when we reached the bottom of the staircase.
At the top, I was sure I’d passout but, in the odd chance my lungs would prove me wrong, I kept all concerns inside my helmet.
If I’m going to pass out, this is the best place to do it, I deduced.
I knew I could quit the training session at any time, but I was in complete awe of the volunteer firefighters’ tireless dedication to the exhausting drill and I wasn’t about to reveal myself as the mere mortal among the gods.
We searched the upper level for the life-sized Rescue Randy mannequin, then, to my delight, made way for the exit.
We did not find Randy, whom I’m told weighs 150 pounds, and I didn’t ask if he was actually in the building in case they’d make us go back in to get him.It was at this point — shortly after I gladly sprung out of the exit empty-handed in pursuit of fresh air — that I realized I do not have what it takes to be a firefighter.
After a short break, we were back on our hands and knees, scouring another building as part of a live fire situation. This time, we took a charged hose and thermal imaging camerainto the drill designed to get the firefighters used to the heat and smoke they may encounter inside a burning building. Because we were in a controlled environment, and I knew human life was not at risk, this exercise was, well, a blast. Dousing the flames while the real firefighters stabilized the hose line was almost as fun as using the Jaws of Life extrication tools to free a fictitious victim from a junked car at the training ground. But enough bragging.
The training session concluded with a quick demonstration of medical assist procedures followed in cases of cardiac arrest.
Maynard, who was kind enough to feign excitement about my mediocre performance, says it generally takes new recruits six months to a year to become trained in interior search and rescue, fire attack, vehicle extrication and medical assistance.
He says the Hantsport Fire Department has an active base of about 40 volunteers, but the members are not forced to do anything they are not comfortable with.
“Not everybody can do (breathing apparatus) work, not everybody can go into a burning building — not everybody likes to do medicals,” he said.
“We find there is a niche for everybody in the fire service. It might just be directing traffic, which can be a very dangerous job as well.”
Maynard says the department is always recruiting, and few things are more rewarding than having the ability to assist when assistance is needed most, but the work can be extremely challenging.
“I don’t sugar coat it. You’re going to see things that you’ve never seen before and that ordinary people don’t see.”
If you see the firefighters in action, remember they are ordinary people — many of whom juggle full-time jobs with the fire service and family life — and take the time to express your thanks.
The lucky among us may never have to call on the fire department for emergency assistance, but those who will are lucky there are well-trained responders ready for the call.