Spending a day in firefighter's boots
Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Tracy pressed a pike-edged crowbar into the tiny crack along the frame of a metal door.
"Hit!" he said, and I struck it.
"Hit!" he said, and I struck again.
"Hit!" he said, and I swung the fat end of my axe into the back of his crowbar for about the thirtieth time, finally driving the door a few inches open.
I crumpled over, out of breath.
"Let's go in," Tracy motioned ahead.
It was Saturday morning at 10 a.m. and we'd just forced our way into a four-story cement tower at the Fairfield Regional Fire Training Center on One Rod Highway. Dusty clouds rose out of the building's top.
Our mission -- gain entry, search and rescue -- was one of five simulated emergencies that four politicians and I were completing alongside area fire fighters as part of this town's second-annual "Fire Ops 101" day. The event is designed to give elected representatives and media a hands-on feel for a firefighter's tasks.
"Basically, our job is to make tomorrow happen for all citizens, and we do it well," said Fire Chief Richard Felner during the hour-long briefing earlier in the morning. "After today, you'll better understand what we do, why we do it, and how we do it."
Tracy and I turned sideways and slipped through the portable door. We climbed three flights of stairs to a bedroom filling with smoke. A victim might be there in need of our help, they said. Maybe multiple victims. Or maybe none.
Tracy switched on my oxygen and we dropped to our hands and knees. We crawled along the right-side wall. Our vision worsening, we groped for bodies and listened for noise. I swept the wooden handle of the axe behind doors and under tables and shelves. Tracy held on to my ankle.
Soon, we reached a bed halfway around the room. I rolled up and found a flattened fire-hose, coiled into the shape of a body.
"We have to get him out!" Tracy said.
I pulled and it crashed to the floor.
"You know where to go?"
"The stairs," I said, turning to point. I couldn't see them.
Tracy motioned back to the wall. We dragged the body across the stone floor. I pulled the shoulders and Tracy pushed the feet. We shimmied along the back wall, and the smoke thickened. If the floor had been wood, it could have collapsed at any moment.
Although this fire was fake, the smoke and claustrophobia I began to feel were real. It was hot and I was wearing a heavy jacket, thick pants, gloves, boots and a helmet. My gas mask reached around to an oxygen tank on my back. Under the gear, my jeans and T-shirt were already soaking through with sweat. I had a storm cloud of soot swirling in my face. I was dragging an axe and shoving a lump of fire-hose flesh.
It was disorienting. Tracy crawled ahead and started pulling the feet. I lifted my shoulders and pushed.
"Get your head down!" he said.
By now, the faint glow of Tracy's flashlight had vanished and all I saw was black. I lost contact with the wall. Sweat ran into my eyes and stung. My mask fogged and I gasped for air from my oxygen tank. My heart pounded. I was lost at sea in a medium-sized bedroom.
Tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick, tick-a-tick"�
"Let's go, go!" a fireman yelled from the stairs. "That sound means you're running out of air."
Holding my breath, I followed the body as it suddenly jerked itself towards the stairs (Tracy's work). I crawled through the doorway and climbed to my feet.
"I think I left my axe in there," I pointed back.
"We'll get it later," Tracy said.
My first mission as a fireman did not go entirely as I'd once planned. Back as a 10-year-old, I dreamed of glory and heroics. Now all I longed for was a shower and a Starbuck's. Heading downstairs, my performance was scored: If this had been a real fire, that body would have been toast.
That's why firefighters train almost daily, of course. And that's why I'm a journalist, I joked.
Training Center: A History
The Fairfield Regional Fire Training Center was built in the early 1950s as a Nike Missile site. The fire department inherited it in 1965, and it became a fire school for other towns in 1971. Despite some alterations, it retains the feel of a Cold War army bunker.
On Saturday morning, a HAM radio club was meeting in the back classroom. Several coffee makers bubbled in the small kitchen in the middle. As the facility lacks potable water, the machines need bottled water to run.
For years, the department has asked the state for money to renovate the place. Legislators have slated it for millions of dollars in funds. Now, it sits waiting for the governor to commission the contract.
"We needed the money when the economy was good," Felner said. "Now we need the money even more."
In the course of the day, I was led in a circle around the perimeter of the lot. I climbed ladders to flat and slanted roofs, and learned how to saw ventilation holes in them. I pried a victim -- Asst. Chief Tracy -- from a crumpled car with hydraulic tools, one of which, it seemed to me, resembled a beetle's pinchers (except that it was metal, hooked up to an engine and tore through car frames). To conclude, I was led through a simulation of giving CPR in a moving ambulance.
First though, it was off to the "burn-house," one of two such facilities in the state, where highly-controllable fires can be built for training.
After strapping a new oxygen tank to my back, Tracy took me over. Unlike in the first exercise, this time around the fire was real.
Crouched in the first-floor room beside Tracy and Lieutenant Lee Corbo, I felt more like an astronaut on a voyage to a strange and distant planet. We parked in front of the flames, which burned on six layers of wood jammed with kindling, and Lt. Corbo peeled down my glove and exposed my wrist to the fire's heat.
"You feel that?"
"Yeah," I said.
He lifted my hand.
"You feel that?"
"Yeah," I said, gritting my teeth.
"Now let's grab the fire hose."
We went to the front door. Corbo handed me the nozzle and I struggled to pull it back to the fire. Filled with water, it felt like a tube of cement. I tugged and started sweating. The two firemen helped me drag it nearer. Then I crouched down and held it like a bazooka. I opened the nozzle and a stream of water shot to the ceiling. The hose recoiled and knocked me off balance. Still, the water was landing on, and quelling, the flames some. The room cooled.
With the fire controlled, we pulled the hose around a cinderblock wall and marched it down a narrow corridor. At the end of the passage the hallway turned left. It went about a dozen yards further to a staircase, which looked dungeon-like, wrapped around a tight bend and leading up to the second floor.
The mission was two-fold: contain the fire to the downstairs room and bring the hose to the second floor where the intensity of heat was higher. More important, though, I learned something else: the difficulty and necessity of keeping one's cool in the scorching heat.
"Someone else's emergency is not your emergency," someone told me before heading in. "It's your workplace."
With the fire-hose coiling into an "O" in the corner of the hallway, it was starting to feel like my emergency. The three of us were some 15 yards from the doorway with the fire roasting on the other side of the wall. Momentarily stuck and with the temperature climbing, I felt like a pizza in a brick oven.
We had pulled the complete length of one hose into the hallway, and then returned to the doorway to yank in a second. The excess hose was now bunching up in the hallway corner. Seeing this, I recalled the time last summer when it took me an hour to untangle a garden hose in the front lawn. There was little comfort in this thought.
Although the confusion seemed critical to me, we quickly sorted it out. They told me to drag the nozzle towards the staircase, which at first I couldn't find. By the time I did, I was wobbling. I lumbered awkwardly up and slipped.
"Don't stand!" Lt. Corbo instructed. "Crawl."
Nearing the top, an awful thought occurred: In the last exercise, without actual flames, I'd nearly exhausted my store of oxygen in just a few minutes. Now, climbing upstairs toward the farthest point possible from the front door, I was the only guy in the building with control of the water. But I couldn't see the flames.
Not only is my life in my hands, I thought, but so are those of two others.
Luckily, this was not exactly true. Corbo followed me up, and when I mishandled the nozzle, he took it and let loose a blast. The flames dropped and the fire again was under control.
By the time I got outside, my oxygen tank was low again. Same with Corbo, who pulled off his mask, hunched over and coughed.
"Are you alright?" someone asked.
"Yeah, I'm good," Corbo said.
I leaned down and caught my breath. Someone approached.
"I want you to know something," the man said (I was not in the frame of mind to get his name). "You see that fire truck that your hose was connected to?" He pointed back at a gleaming machine. "It was made in 1985," he said.
Impressive, I thought. So was I.