I have always understood that fire fighting is exceptionally difficult, dangerous, and often heroic work. But it is one thing to grasp the challenges intellectually and another to experience them firsthand. So this past Friday, I was very glad to participate in a half-day fire operations training session.
Organized and staffed by fire fighters from Westchester’s large cities, with New Rochelle in the lead, it was an opportunity for elected officials to get a small sense of how it feels to fight fires and respond to other emergencies.
For those of us not used to this sort of thing, it was an intense, arduous, and at times even slightly panic-inducing experience. I’m still exhausted.
To start the day, we were all fitted with gear – heavy protective outerwear, the familiar over-sized fire fighter helmet, and an oxygen tank and mask. A few stones of weight, at least.
Then we proceeded through four forms of training (or “evolutions” as the trainers call them.).
First, the simulated extraction of a driver from a car accident, using hydraulic cutters and spreaders and manual saws to peel away the car’s windshield, doors, and roof. The sheer force of the hydraulic equipment is impressive.
Second, the suppression of a real, though controlled, fire in a simulated home. For this exercise we had to drag a fire hose through the home on our knees, breathing only through our oxygen masks, and eventually dousing flames in a room that reached about 200 degrees. (A real burning home could get hundreds of degrees hotter.)
Third, emergency medical response for a patient in cardiac arrest in a third floor walk-up apartment. (Complete with pretty convincing actors playing the part of distraught family members.)
Finally, a search and rescue attempt in a smoke-filled home. This last proved the most difficult for me. Like in the second exercise, we were required to breath exclusively through our oxygen masks. Meanwhile, the smoke reduced visibility literally to zero. As I crawled blindly around the perimeter of the lightless space, left hand extended to the wall, right hand holding an axe to sweep the floor for obstructions that might be victims, drawing air from my tank, and lunging clumsily to keep up with the professional fire fighter with whom I had been paired, claustrophobia set in quickly and urgently. I was very relieved to get out.
Of course, as tough as the day might have seemed for the politicians like me, all of these exercises were conducted in completely controlled, entirely safe conditions that only vaguely resemble the far more chaotic and dangerous circumstances of a actual emergency. We were getting just a hint of the real thing.
I am grateful for the members of the FD who put together the program, especially Pete Miley who guided me throughout.
Plus, I get to keep the helmet. (Which I probably shouldn’t wear too much – shades of Dukakis in the tank.)