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Facing the fire and conquering my fears | Fire Ops 101

East Pierce Firefighter Mike Westland and Bonney Lake-Sumner Courier-Herald Reporter Theresa De Lay at Fire Ops 101 on May 2 - Matt Lowery
East Pierce Firefighter Mike Westland and Bonney Lake-Sumner Courier-Herald Reporter Theresa De Lay at Fire Ops 101 on May 2
— image credit: Matt Lowery

It was Thursday, May 1 and a room full of lawmakers and journalists mingled with members of the International Association of Firefighters District 7 at the Volpentest HAMMER Training and Education Center in Hanford. The event was Fire Ops 101, an annual opportunity for decision makers to acquire a realistic taste of what firefighters do when they respond to incidents. The union sponsors it annually, with the hopes to provide a learning experience that those with power will recall when voting and implementing budgets.

I was ushered through the orientation process by my firefighter “shadows,” Matt Lowery and Mike Westland, from IAFF Local 3520 – the union group that represents East Pierce Fire and Rescue. Paperwork was filed and my bunker gear was set out for the next morning. Essentially, it was an opportunity to show me exactly how nervous I should be. After all, I was about to embark on a day in the boots of a firefighter.

Participants were given a safety briefing and reminded to hydrate adequately before morning. The phrase “time critical, highly technical, and labor intensive” was drilled into my mind as a description of the work done by real firefighters. I thought I understood it at the time, but I learned very quickly the next day that in all actuality, I had no idea.

We arrived to a light but wholesome breakfast. Pretending to be a firefighter promised to be a daunting task and proper nutrition was strongly encouraged. On site emergency personnel recorded our vital signs before we geared up, and though it was only 7 a.m., the sun was already warming the air. The year before was plagued by excessive heat, but my Fire Ops class was blessed with a balmy 90 degree day.

My shadows, as experienced firefighters, were dressed from head to toe in a fraction of the time it took myself. I struggled with the heavy gear and already, I mentally checked off the “time critical” component that was being repeated. From the moment a call comes in, firefighters must move with incredible speed and surety.

Six events were stationed around the facility and we were broken up into groups to make our way through each challenge. The first stop on my schedule was vehicle extrication. I felt accomplished as I stood there, prepared for the hours ahead of me.

Then the walk began. Only 10 steps in those boots and my feet wanted out. The term “labor intensive” came to mind and we hadn’t even reached the first station. For each stride Matt and Mike took, I felt as though I was running to keep up. My not-so-staggering height of five foot, two inches may have had something to do with it.

“Remember,” Matt said. “We’re going to push you today but the purpose isn’t to hurt you or scare you. We’ll be right beside you and these situations are meant to be as realistic as possible, but they are all highly controlled. If anything is too much, just say so.”

As I responded with some sarcastic comment about being tougher than I look, the ladder truck came into view. My head turned as we walked and my eyes followed the ladder, extended up a six-story building.

“Is that the ladder I’m going to climb?” I asked in a tone that I hoped didn’t sound as nervous as I felt.

My shadows smiled and patted me on the back. I didn’t have time to worry about it, we were arriving at the scene of a collision.

The Puyallup Extrication Team prepared mock collision sites with a bevy of tools and a mannequin trapped inside one of the vehicles.

I stood near the edge of the group, soaking everything in. I tend to observe a lot, which is a trait I like to think makes me a proficient journalist. But Mike nudged me forward; Fire Ops is not about observing, it’s about jumping in and stepping out of your comfort zone. His gentle but firm reminder needed no words for me to understand its meaning.

The education team prepped us on the importance of safety but the majority of the educational conversation revolved around funding for proper tools and adequate staffing. The “highly technical” aspect was illustrated directly in front of me.

I was handed tools to break the windows out of the vehicle, while a teammate climbed inside for victim support. After a moment of hesitation, I found myself enjoying the therapeutic sound of shattered glass. However, the hot sun and heavy bunker gear had me sweating before any real work actually began.

The event organizer asked for a volunteer to operate the jaws of life. The stern but supportive look on Mike’s face said it all, I had to be the one. So I stepped forward and learned how to operate the beast.

The ratio of career firefighters to make-believers was significantly more, but we were expected to do as much of the work as possible, with as little assistance as we could muster. Let’s be honest, Mike helped steady the jaws of life for me but I’m OK with that. Not many reporters can say they wielded a power tool clocking in at nearly half their weight, in order to tear the roof off a car.

Our team “saved” the mannequin and as we walked across the tarmac to the next station, I looked back for a moment. Despite the heat, I shivered at the thought of a real person needing our assistance in that vehicle; their future depending on our ability to do the job quickly and efficiently. Or perhaps that was my muscles shaking from physical exertion. It was honestly hard to tell. Labor intensive.

Thankfully, a 15-minute break proceeded each station. I was ravenous and thirsty. Water and snacks were provided and each participant had their vital signs checked again before moving on to the next event.

Station number two was a search and rescue simulation. I readied my air mask and crawled inside a smoke-filled maze, with Matt following close behind me. The combination of blackout conditions, close quarters, a mask on my face and a heavy oxygen tank on my back was too much at one point. Or at least I thought it was. A quick pep talk from my shadow and I was ready to keep going. I made it through but part two was still ahead of me. We drug a heavy hose up the stairs and with one hand on the wall for bearings, searched for the “victim” inside. I located the mannequin and began the work of dragging it out. I swear it weighed 300 pounds, though I’m told it was closer to 90.

“Now imagine doing that with furniture in the way and screaming family members asking for help,” Matt said. “The source of the smoke could be around any corner and it’s a building that you’re completely unfamiliar with.”

The writer in me was lost for a moment in the imagined scenario but I was promptly snapped back to reality with the promise of another break.

At the next station, I performed chest compressions for two minutes in a moving vehicle, a feat that proved to be more complicated than I could imagine. We jostled and bounced around in a vain attempt at trying to keep our patient alive while transporting them to the hospital.

Somewhere during the first part of the day, I tweaked my shoulder. It wasn’t a major injury, but my shadows and I decided that further straining it would be poor judgement and ultimately, a certain editor might stop approving these crazy adventures of mine if I came back broken.

The rest of my team strapped their air tanks back on and prepared to put out a fire originating from a large propane tank, I stood back just far enough to be out of the smoke zone, but the heat required I put my gloves on to protect my fingers. I tried to get closer for the sake of a photograph, but the heat was too intense. Flames licked against the sky and the roar of the fire startled me. The team moved with grace and precision as their shadows steadied the hose and directed them when to advance upon the fire and when to retreat.

Giving up on the oxygen tank before actually fighting a fire wasn’t easy for me. I felt defeated however, it was a much-needed reminder that first responders put their bodies at great physical risk in order to protect the general public.

The most unfortunate part was that it meant there was no way I would get out of climbing the six-story ladder. I had to complete as much of the day as physically possible.

We approached the ladder truck at the second-to-last station of the day. Matt and Mike both sensed my apprehension and walked me through each worst-case-scenario, none of which seemed too bad when my feet were firmly on the ground. However, four steps onto the ladder and logical thought escaped me. I suddenly felt the weight of my bunker gear, as if for the first time all day. It was as though the rope fastened tightly around my waist didn’t exist. My breath caught in my throat and tears began to well in my eyes. I hugged the ladder and told Mike I changed my mind.

“You didn’t know this Theresa, but the moment you took that second step, you weren’t turning back. It’s not an option anymore,” Mike said. “The only way off this ladder is to go up. Nothing can hurt you and there’s no reason to rush. We can wait right here for as long as you need.”

Part of me hated him for pushing me; his use of logic was infuriating. But mostly I knew he was right. I steadied my breathing, stared straight ahead and resumed a slow trip up the wobbling ladder. I reached the top and could hardly contain myself as I listened to the presenter.

That was the commute. In a real situation, your work would be just beginning, he said. He reminded me that real firefighters would have brought all their tools up with them and would then begin to cut ventilation holes in the roof for smoke to escape.

His lecture was well versed and I appreciated every word, but I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I had conquered my greatest fear and as I noted his points, I found myself grinning and gazing at the world around me. My shadows, the presenter, and the patient woman at the top of the ladder that was tasked with waiting… and waiting… and waiting for me to make my way up, patted me on the back, shook my hand and embraced me with congratulatory hugs. This is what it’s all about, they said.

“We don’t get paid for what we do,” Mike said. “We get paid for what we’re willing to do…. Fear is natural, it’s good. It keeps firefighters alive. Complacency and lack of respect for the work can get us killed. We’re as strong as the people next to us. We’re all willing to sacrifice, that’s why we do this, and we gain strength from each other. But at the end of the day, our goal is for each of us to make it home in one piece.”

Departments work with what they have but proper tools, training and adequate staffing reduces physical and mental stress, which decreases the risk of injury and death to firefighters, he said. It also increases the quality of care victims receive.

I’ve always thought I appreciated the work done by first responders but after facing fire and fear, I realized the understanding I had doesn’t come close to the reality that is their career. When tragedy strikes and the rest of the world runs from danger, firefighters respond in the blink of an eye and run directly towards it. They are normal men and women, only as strong as the person next to them and susceptible to the same fears everyone else is. Yet they do it anyway.

I’ve never been more proud of a personal journey but believe me when I say, I couldn’t get those boots off fast enough.

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