Editor's note: Freelance writer Mike Lauterborn recently got a firsthand taste of what it's like to be a firefighter at the FireOps 101 program at the Fairfield Fire Training School on One Rod Highway. The annual program, organized by the Fairfield Fire Department and several others in the area, is designed to introduce the public officials and others to the rigors of firefighter training and the challenges they face daily. Here is his account.

They say the only way to truly appreciate what someone does is to walk a mile in their shoes ... or, in this case, boots and toting close to hundred pounds of gear and equipment.

I recently had the opportunity to embed with career firefighters at the Fairfield Fire Training School on One Rod Highway to do just that. The program involved exercises providing education about firefighters' roles and an understanding of equipment and manpower needs that can give officials insight.

More than 40 firefighters, drawn from Fairfield, Westport and Stratford, were on hand to shadow a half-dozen participants, help operate equipment and lead demonstrations of both equipment and firefighting processes.

Overseen by Fairfield Assistant Fire Chief Scott Bisson, the incident commander for the day, the morning began in a classroom setting with a short film, "Smoke Showing," giving an overview about command hierarchy, firefighting strategies and safety advisories. Bisson said there are four essentials that determine the outcome of a fire: training, technology, staffing and notification.

Interim First Selectman Michael Tetreau, an alumnus of the FireOps 101 program, extended a welcome, and shared this insight: "It's an equipment intensive job, and this program reinforces that. I think we've always supported the needs of the Fire Department. You know someone's life depends on it and you want the best equipment out there."

Organizers on the drill grounds -- which includes the training center, an annex classroom, propane fire area, four-story tower, two-story burn building, vehicle "boneyard" and a new flashover simulator -- wasted no time in immersing me in the most demanding of activities: attacking a structural fire.

Suited up from head to toe in full gear and outfitted with an air tank and mask, I was placed at the head of a hose line and sent into the burn building with a support crew of "wranglers" to battle the blaze. Hay and wood pallets had been ignited in a bottom floor room, producing thick smoke that carried upwards in the unventilated structure. The result was almost zero visibility, making keeping a hand on the hose line a critical measure to safely navigate the structure.

"Typically," Assistant Chief Chris Tracy said, "an interior is fully charged with velvety black smoke, there's no clear indication of a fire and you have to listen for the pops, crackles and small explosions to find it. Guys on the line shout to each other or use signals or back slaps to communicate -- one for stop, two for go. Then we look to hit the seat, or hottest point, of the fire."

At the next activity station, focused on emergency medical services, Lt. Erik Kalapir noted, "60 to 70 percent of our calls are medical based. In Fairfield, private service AMR is the responder, however, firefighters are the first responders. With five fire stations across town, we can get to almost any home in four to six minutes, to do defibrillations, administer medicines, provide oxygen therapy and more. With the downturn in the economy and an aging population, we're being asked to do more, with less. We're losing a piece of the budget pie to other community needs and constantly having to reorganize and reinvent ourselves."

The program's forcible-entry and search-and-rescue station, operated by Firefighters Salvato, Goletz and DeNitto, involved the use of "irons" -- a Halligan bar and flathead ax -- to bust through a commercial door and the "Braille" method location of a victim in a pitch black room filled with thick smoke.

A roof exercise followed, led by Stratford Lt. Sean McKenney and Firefighter Bryan Williams, who led the way up a 100-foot truck-mounted ladder to a rooftop.

"The job of the suppression crew is to open up the highest point of a structure, to help lift the smoke inside, prevent flashover, reduce property damage and save lives," McKenney said.

Ventilation was performed using a circular or vent saw. Here again, available resources were an issue.

"A properly staffed ladder company should have a minimum of four men," Williams said. "We're operating with two to three, risking injury to firefighters, forcing time constraints, preventing the saving of lives and allowing greater property damage."

The extrication station, led chiefly by Stratford Firefighter Doug Ashe, focused on the safe removal of a victim from a vehicle in a serious accident scenario.

"We assume spinal injuries, so it's safer to remove the car from around the person than to remove the person from the car," Ashe said.

Using irons to break and remove glass, a hydraulic-driven spreader to pop doors off hinges and a powerful pruner to cut through roof posts, the task is accomplished. Ashe noted that frequent changes in chassis reinforcement, live wires and airbags requires continual training.

There was one clear takeaway from the morning: these guys are passionate about their occupation and consider it their calling.

"I feel I was put on this planet to do this job. You have to be passionate about it," Stratford Lt. Stephen O'Hara said.

Observed Stratford Firefighter Roy Minton, "This was the best decision I ever made. Sometimes you really have an impact on someone's life."