THE bell went off and jerked me out of my sleep. The vocal dispatch blared through the fire station, “Reported building fire, 353 East Olive. Cross street, Third. Time out 1435.”
That’s when all my training met its test. I swiftly donned my protective clothing, consisting of a helmet, fire-resistant coat, protective pants, gloves and safety boots. As I climbed onto the fire engine my heart rate seemed to double. The siren began to wail, and we were off to my first official fire.
Even before reaching the scene, the captain turned and yelled to me: “Looks like we’ve got a working fire. There’s smoke visible. Put on a breathing apparatus.” The self-contained breathing apparatus allows us to breathe fresh air in a smoky atmosphere. It also adds roughly 25 pounds to our already heavy gear. But, while we head toward the fire, you may be asking, ‘How were you trained for this work?’
My fireman preparation started when I was 21 years old, with a six-week course of both classroom and in-the-field training. It consisted of learning fire behavior in both structure and forest settings. I was trained in handling hazardous chemical spills and flammable liquid fires; I also learned equipment operation, and first aid and rescue techniques.
I can remember training-school drills when we were put into a pitch-black basement in teams of two. We had our breathing apparatus on and were told that we had only five minutes of air left. Then we were instructed to search the floor for bodies. We had taken a hose line in with us, and our only way out was to follow it back to the door. While we were in the basement, the instructor was jumping on the metal roof, creating a terribly frightening noise. This drill, like others, was designed to test our ability to work under adverse conditions and to make sure we would not panic easily. But let’s get back to the real thing.
Screams for Help
Once on the fire scene I could see a two-story apartment complex with the entire upper floor enveloped in flames. A woman was hanging out a window screaming for someone to get her down. My captain told me: “Throw up a 24 to the second floor window.” A 24 is a 24-foot (7-m) extension ladder. I must have extended one to a second story window 50 or 60 times in school, but this time it was for real, and we saved the lady.
Just after I had put up the ladder, another fireman yelled to me: “Grab an ax. We’ve got to make entry.” Forcible entry into structures is another skill learned in school. But I wasn’t worried about making entry. That’s usually easy. What worried me was what was on the other side of the door. It could be a wall of raging fire or thick clouds of poisonous black smoke. Many people do not realize that most deaths in fires result from inhaling this deadly smoke long before the fire reaches them. So where is the safest place if you are trapped in a fire? Close to the ground with a wet cloth over your mouth and nose to protect you from the deadly gases and smoke.
We made entry and found ourselves in the thick of smoke and heat. We crawled from room to room with visibility not more than three to four inches (8 to 10 cm). We were trying to find the fire and extinguish it with the hose I was dragging beside me. At school we spent a lot of time learning the proper use of hoses and nozzles. They used to tell us: “Never leave your hose line. It’s the one thing that can save your life.” They were right! As we crawled farther into the apartment there was a glow of light coming from a bedroom. The focus of the fire was there. However, with the high-powered hose the fire was soon extinguished.
Once the fire was out, we began what we call salvage and overhaul. This is done by sifting through the charred rubble in an effort to find smoldering hot spots, salvageable valuables and clues to the cause of the fire. In this case the fire was traced to faulty wiring in a wall heating unit. It is surprising how many fires are due to defective wiring and electrical apparatuses.
I look for fire hazards like these when making yearly inspections of the businesses in my city. Other than fighting fires, this is one of the many routine duties I have as a fireman. Many hours of study about city building and electrical codes, as well as storage of flammable and hazardous chemicals, are required to make these inspections effective. I am also involved in teaching first aid and fire-safety classes to community groups. As you can see, we firemen are kept busy even when there are no fires. I even have common house chores, such as mopping floors, mowing lawns and washing windows at the fire station.
As I look back on my first year as a fireman, I can recall many “first time” experiences. We responded to fires in huge storage plants and brush areas. We were called to assist victims of heart attacks, attempted suicides and industrial accidents. All of this was part of my job as a fireman.