Monday, April 4, 2011

A Day of Training

As a lieutenant, one of my responsibilities is helping train the firefighters in my charge. For a guy who doesn't particularly enjoy speaking in front of people, this prospect isn't a welcomed one. When my chief asked me the other day to train everyone in our battalion, of course, I immediately said "no." Actually, it sounded more like, "Whatever you need, chief," but you get the point.

In the fire service there is a series of trainings that we call, "Save Your Own” training. Basically, these lessons are exactly what the title says. Over the years firefighters have found we spend most of our time training on how to save you, the public, from whatever hazard you may find yourself in. That's great, that's what we're expected to do, but we were neglecting ourselves in the process. If one of us becomes trapped while looking for you, then who will save you?

It makes perfect sense if you think about it. With firefighters in the most hazardous conditions you can imagine, think about how much harder it would be to get one of our members out of our predicament. After all, that member was where he or she was because it was dangerous. Now, add 70-100 pounds of equipment and you see how impossible it can become.

Trainings have been developed over the last 20 years or so in an effort to teach us how to get ourselves or our brethren out of precarious situations… Like bailing out of an upper floor window without falling to our deaths if the room suddenly engulfs us in flames. Or how to best carry a fellow firefighter down a ladder if they become unconscious. That might sound easy at first but let me tell you, the simple act of getting an unconscious firefighter (complete with their gear and heavy SCBA) just from the floor to the window sill with fire licking at our necks, well that's enough of a challenge. Add that we still have to get them down a ladder and you begin to understand the difficulty. But there are techniques that can make this task a tad smoother though no less labor intensive. And that's what we work on.

In years past, it was in these life-or-death situations that the firefighters on the scene began thinking about how to best accomplish their rescue. By that point, thinking was too late. So you see the importance of preparing for the what-if’s?

The training I had to simulate this week involved a firefighter with zero visibility getting lost in a warehouse full of smoke (hence the zero visibility). To make this more difficult, we bled the air in his or her air tank down to 1000PSI (about 5-10 minutes depending on the individual's ability to remain calm and his or her own fitness levels). The reason we drain the air supply is to simulate a firefighter who had been working hard previous to becoming lost. We cover the individual's mask so he/she is completely blind. Then, one at a time, we lead the firefighter into the simulated warehouse and get him or her "lost."

The idea of this exercise is to test a firefighter's abilities to call for help, locate the hoseline he or she was using before becoming lost, and get out before that firefighter "dies."

Here is a sobering stat from the exercise. Out of the 26 experienced firefighters who attempted this training, around ten of them ran out of air before they escaped. They essentially "died."

There were a number of factors that contributed to these results. Though we created the exercise so every firefighter would find the hoseline right away, they needed to recognize when they came to a coupling (where two sections of hose join together) and how to tell by gloved feel only which way leads to the truck and freedom and which way leads to the nozzle. It is not a guess, there is a way, but it can be tricky to remember when the something hits the fan. It's a boring technique so I won't go into it here.

Some of the firefighters found the coupling, misread it, and went deeper into the warehouse. By the time they reached the nozzle, they had 200' feet of hose behind them to navigate along in the other direction to escape. A lot of precious air had been used to get to that point. Other members were on their way out when the hose did a circle and crossed itself beneath debris and the firefighter accidentally followed the hoseline in the direction from which they had just come. Trust me, it is easy to do.

Out of the 26 firefighters, one firefighter's microphone on his radio broke and, by no fault of his own, he was unable to call for help. Mind you, he called for help as he had no idea his words weren't going anywhere, but no one would have heard him. Imagine being in your last chance at life and an equipment failure prevents anyone from knowing until it's too late.
There were other minor errors here and there, which is to be expected in such hazardous conditions, but overall the firefighters did a great job. The members who didn't make it out never stopped trying. Even in training, there is a moment when every firefighter, exhausted and sucking that last breath of survivable air, has to decide whether to give up on the training or fight until they are told it is over. It is easy to say, "I quit. I guess I didn't make it." But if you quit now, what happens when it is for real? These guys and gals didn't give up. And I think they learned something. For that I am elated with how the training went.
These deadly situations happen around the country all of the time. You just don't hear about them unless they happens in your community. This training was developed because this exact scenario has happened many times over the years. It'll likely happen again. Here's a boring nugget for you. Firefighters die in commercial structures 4 times more often per incident than in occupied residential structures.

So, hopefully, the firefighters were able to take something away from this training that could help them if, God forbid, they ever find themselves in such a situation. And, hopefully, by reading this, you have a little better understanding of what it's like to be a firefighter.
Even when we're not fighting fires.

I promise to try and crack a joke or two in my next blog to make it more bearable.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I'm full of admiration for any member of the emergency services, but firefighters top the list. Some of the situations you guys have to deal with are horrific in themselves - when you add saving lives into the mix you end up with a bunch of people who are the true superheroes of our world. But I really *really* hope I never need your services!

  2. Douglas, thank you so much for sharing this experience. My seven year-old son is fascinated with firefighters and has been for years. I can't wait to show this to him.

    Be safe and know that you are appreciated. :)