Special Report Live Fire- Level 1
This past weekend, I was able to attend a training course called “Live Fire,” put on by the Justice Institute of British Columbia. The training was held at the North Okanagan Regional District training facility in Vernon, B.C.
Our instructors were two gentlemen from the lower mainland, one has been a firefighter for 21 years with Surrey and the other has also been a firefighter for 21 years and is the high angle rescue trainer for Vancouver Fire and Rescue. From here on in, the first instructor shall be named Hank, and the second shall be named Roy.
It’s 8 am and a chilly autumn morning.
Our Chief sent a total of seven of our crew to this training weekend and we are the first to arrive at the training grounds. We all think this is a great way to impress everyone, but there is no one to impress!
We are standing around when the caretaker of the facility invites us in to the classroom for coffee. Hank appears from behind us as we are deciding who is going to sit where. As in school, most everyone heads to the back of the class. Hank sees this and lures us to the front of the class using goody bags supplied by Hub Fire Engines, our provincial supplier of apparatus. He starts by putting them on the front desks and we gravitate towards them like kids at a birthday party. We start to investigate our booty, when Hank asks if we are from Chilliwack. We reply that we are not, but in fact from Wilson’s Landing. This seems to confuse Hank, and he looks over his registration sheet once more. As it turns out, our chief registered us late and therefore, Hank has 17 students when he is only expecting 10. Oh, what a way to start a weekend! It was fine and we all start chatting about years of service and such as other firefighters trickle in the door. We meet our second instructor, Roy, and then at 8:30, the class begins. It seems that a few firefighters are still missing, but there is a tight schedule and it must be adhered to.
The first part of the class is spent filling out paperwork, medical records and name tags and another fire department comes through the door, apologizing for being late, but that they had met one of Winfield’s finest on their way. They got organized and then a round of introductions came next. We each stated our names, what department we were from, how long we had served and what other training courses we had attended. Areas of Chilliwack, Keremeos, Peachland, Ellison and Wilson’s Landing were present and the class got under way.
The first topic of discussion was what made a safe work environment for a firefighter. Now this may seem an odd question, you’d think there isn’t really any safe work environments for a firefighter, but there is. Good visibility, good communication and low heat are considered a good working environment for a firefighter. I’ve learned something already.
The next segment was about terminology. Backdraft, (not the movie), Flashover, Rollover, and Thermal Layer are words I am now quite familiar with and won’t bore you to tears describing each one. Next came Fire Attack indicators: offensive, defensive and transitional and then fire control methods: incipient stage, free burning and hot smoldering. We watched a video showing each stage of attack and terminology and then broke for coffee.
During the coffee break, we were all able to talk to each other and find out a little about the people we were going to be relying on this weekend.
After coffee, we assembled our tanks that we were going to be wearing for the weekend and it was a learning experience for some of the guys since at their home departments they were used to wearing MSA’s and the JI uses Scott 2.2 to train with. We were all right, since our hall also uses Scott.
After our tanks are ready, we suit up and are split into two groups. Wouldn’t you know it, my husband manages to end up on the other team, but I am partnered with a friend from my department so it’s okay. Hank is our instructor and we are assigned to hose work and are taught to determine what stream the nozzle is set at by feeling the end with our fingers. This seems quite interesting to me and quite necessary in a smoke-filled house. Advancing and aim as a team are tested and then we move onto the 2 1/2 in. I found out that I’m not a good person to have at the end of a retreating 2 1/2 in. hose. The last man is supposed to be able to keep the hose straight while letting the hose curl behind them, I couldn’t keep the hose straight ahead of me, let alone behind me! I guess I need to work on my arm strength….
After the hose work, we switch and are sent to ‘The Maze.’ The maze is made to resemble rooms in a house, but the walls only come up chest high, and there is no roof. The reason for this is because the firefighters are sent into the maze on hands and knees to perform room searches — BLIND! Yes, I said blind. Our masks were switched for identical ones that were blacked out with black electrical tape and we were to do a left and right hand sweep for victims. Two teams of two men each were sent into the maze at intervals, with the first team having the nozzle and fire axe to do the initial search and then when the victim is located, it is passed off to the second team, who then does an about face and takes the victim back to the front door and waiting EMS team. I was the first member of the second team and therefore, only had to follow the hose to locate the other team. As soon as the victim was located, I passed it off to my partner behind me and we headed back along the hose to the front door. I had been fine through this whole exercise, until I reached the point when I knew that we were getting to the front door. I could hear the other firefighters talking to us and I started to get an anxious feeling that I wanted to hurry up and get out. My breathing started to get more rapid and I had to stop and slow myself down before I used up all my air. I knew at that point that I had lost hold of my partner and the victim, but I thought that it was more important that I calm myself down. As I got to the front door and was lifted to my feet, a great sense of relief swept over me.
Roy, who was running this exercise, asked how I felt about the maze and I explained to him the feelings I had coming out of the maze. He explained to me that that was the fear factor that every firefighter has to overcome and that I had done the right thing in stopping and calming myself down before I became the victim. He also said that everyone has to overcome that fear. He asked me to tell everyone else how I felt when we all gathered to talk over the exercise. It seems that I wasn’t the only one who felt like that, which was nice to hear.
We broke for lunch and talked to the other firefighters and got to know each other.
After lunch, it was time to head out to the firehouse. Our group was the first into the firehouse and we toured the house with doors and windows open for the first and last time.
We donned our packs and headed to the basement. We were told to crouch on the floor on our knees and watched as a pallet fire was lit to demonstrate the difference between a thermal layer and a smoke layer. It was also a chance to see just how well our turnout gear protects us. For some of us, it was the first time we had been in a room with a fire in our gear, and it was VERY interesting to see how well we are protected. After about 10 minutes, the room was starting to get very warm, but in our gear, it only felt sauna warm. Hank told us to take off our glove v e r y slowly and slowly reach up until our bare hand couldn’t take the heat anymore. This level was at our heads, about 3 ft. off the floor. Hank told us to imagine being in there with out gear on, especially bellaclavas.
Right then, someone ran out of air and had to change tanks, so the door was opened and that allowed a smoke layer to build up, since the fire was burning so cleanly and so hot, there was no smoke layer so far. Being in that room was an awe-inspiring event for me. We got quiet for a few moments and the only sounds you could hear were the fire blazing and the air rushing past your ears each time you took a breath. The smoke was swirling around just above our heads like a slick of ooze if you looked at it from the underside. The perspiration was running down every part of my body that wasn’t covered with clothes underneath my turnouts and you could have lost yourself in the moment if you really tried. The smoke was swirling around just above our heads and you could have lost yourself in the moment if you really tried. Fire is referred to by many names and entities, ‘The Red Devil’ is one that springs to mind, but in that controlled environment, I witnessed Mother Nature’s power and I was fascinated by it.
The silence was shattered when Hank yelled out that each of us was to take a turn and (almost) extinguish the fire without breaking the ceiling. The ceiling Hank was referring to is the Thermal layer. We were taught that morning how to control a fire without bringing down the ceiling, which would literally cook any victim left in the house, making a rescue attempt useless. I took my turn and headed out of the house. Once I got outside, I realized just how hot we were in there. The cool, autumn air had never felt so refreshing, and I eagerly ripped off my air mask to feel the fresh air on my face. Once the rest of the crew had their shot, we switched again and headed to the auto fire area.
I have to admit that all this time on my knees and the rigors of the day where starting to wear heavy on me, and our next exercise was on our knees again.
The auto fire segment was having two hose crews, one attack team and one support team and I was on the attack hose first. I was put in charge of the hallogen tool, (used to pry open doors and hoods) and by the time we got the trunk, my knees couldn’t take any more. I tried to step out of the exercise, (since it was a dry run) and my legs buckled beneath me. Roy was there to catch my fall and pulled me out of the exercise. I limped over to the side and felt like a complete failure. Here I was, the only woman in the whole class, and I couldn’t make the whole day! I was heading right into the stereotype that I was trying to avoid since I walked into that classroom first thing in the morning. I felt crushed. The first aid attendant rushed over and made me strip off my gear and cool off. I was in so much pain and so hot that I didn’t even think I could stand anymore, but I managed to stay on my feet once I got most of my gear off. I watched the rest of my team make it through the exercise and went off to chug many glasses of water. I walked back to the exercise area and was going to put my gear back on, but the FA Attendant wouldn’t let me back in until I had cooled down some more. I watched from the sidelines as our group switched sides and we became the support team. I wanted to go in, but I was being watched, so I was good and stayed until the exercise was done. Everything went quite well with the training and then we all went back to the building and stripped, since it was the end of the day. I haven’t seen so many pairs of underwear, (that weren’t on my husband), in my life!I felt like one of those women sports reporters in the guy’s locker room. I looked at the floor and studied it until my husband said it was all clear.
We all headed to our respective vehicles and as I got closer to ours, the tears of frustration and exhaustion were burning my eyes. My husband drove us home, and told me over and over again, how proud of me he was and that he didn’t even think I could do as much as I did. Somehow his words of encouragement didn’t help me overcome my sense of failure, if fact, it made me feel worse. I think it was the sheer exhaustion that made me so emotional and he said that if I didn’t have ‘strong feelings’ as he called them, he would have been worried about me.
We made it back to my sister’s house, and we both headed for the shower. It was then that I found out that I had …turn your heads guys…..(started my period) of all things! We ate supper and I sat and fed my new nephew for a while and we fell asleep together in the armchair. I headed off to bed at 7:30 pm.
I didn’t sleep a wink all night Saturday. I was so anxious about going into the firehouse again on Sunday — everything that we had learned that day was going through my head constantly and I was worried about having stepped out on Saturday and if that was going to affect my finishing the course. I was an absolute mess by the time we got back to the training center, I couldn’t stop shaking and I guess I looked green.
Roy noticed it as soon as I walked through the door, and we talked out in the hallway. He asked me if anything was wrong, and I told him that I hadn’t slept that night before and why. He assured me that I wasn’t only being graded on one day, but if I didn’t feel like going on, to let him know, and he would pull me out. I said that I wanted to try my best, but that at that moment, I felt like I was a waste of space. There was no way on earth that I was going to tell him that I had started my period and was even more run down than from just not sleeping. He quickly assured me that I wasn’t wasting space and that he would watch me throughout the day.
We geared up again and our turnouts were disgustingly wet from the day before (on the inside) and we donned our tanks and met at the firehouse. We were told by Hank that today we would be working in three teams of five and six, working on Incident Command, Fire attack and Search And Rescue.
My group was the first team into the house for Search And Rescue. This entailed entering the house on the Alpha side (through the front door) and doing a left hand search of the second floor for the victim. I was third man on the hose and we crouched in front of the door waiting for our nozzleman to give the go-ahead. He tested the door and we went inside. The first thing we came to was a flight of stairs going up and we headed up to second floor. The house was filled with thick, black, choking smoke (helped along by a pile of wet straw burning in the basement) and I couldn’t see anything in front of me. I gripped the hose like I was trying to squeeze the life out of it, and realized that my breath was coming in short, quick bursts. I tried to talk to myself in a calming way, like Roy had told me to do the day before. Then, I heard a shout from in front of me for more hose. I pulled with all my might to deliver the hose, and we inched our way into the blackness. Crawling along the floor for what seemed like hours, I heard from in front of me that they had located the victim. The man in front of me then appeared before my face as the room started to clear due to the venting that was being done around us. He had the victim and ordered me to turn around and head to the front door. We had been taught to pass the victim to the last man on the team, but there was so much hose in the house with us, that I had to take our excess hose with us out the door. We reached the door, stepped outside and I had to remove my mask as the sudden urge to vomit swept over me. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and I had never felt that sensation before.
I stood over by the edge of the training ground, waiting for the most embarrassing moment of my life to come, but I managed to keep everything down. I had escaped the worst fate I could think of at the time, throwing up in front of my fellow firefighters. After a few moments, my team came over and asked if I was all right, and I assured them that I was. I walked back to the training area, and Roy came over with the FA attendant to check me out, and I told them what happened. Mike, the FA guy, told me to strip down again; drink lots of water and wait it out. The exercise was done by then and everyone gathered around to discuss how everything went and how they felt about it. The exercise was set up again and I let Roy and my team know that I was sitting this one out. They repeated the same scenario over and over again, but with the teams rotating to each different station, IC, SAR and Fire Attack. Not being inside, I was still able to watch each team go through IC and hear the comments of the other teams as they exited the house the house.
Lunchtime came and as I was heading down the hall, I passed the men’s washroom and overheard Roy talking to my husband. I didn’t stop, but could feel my cheeks grow red and hot with embarrassment. I was almost in tears again as we got in line to get our subs and I just smiled at my husband, trying not to let him know how badly I felt. As we were eating, conversations buzzed around our heads about the morning’s practice and I leaned over to ask what Roy had said about me. My husband told me that he just filled him in on what happened with me, since he wasn’t on my team and couldn’t see what had happened. He said nothing bad about my having to step out and that sometimes it happens to the best of them. I was very relieved to hear that and went back to eating and watching everyone else talking excitedly about this afternoon’s practice.
After lunch, the same scenario was set up and each team went through the exercise again and again. My stomach still felt awful and I let Roy know that I thought I was done for the day. I felt awful and like I was giving up, but he insisted that as long as I had tried the best I could, I could go back to my hall with my head held high and practice for next year.
I was able to hang around and watch everyone for the rest of the afternoon, and take some pictures. The firehouse has a viewing window in the basement, and Mike sent me down there to watch what was going on in the basement, with strict instructions not to touch the window because I would severely burn myself. I headed down into the shed and sat and waited for the next exercise to begin. I saw a small red glow to my extreme left through the window, but I thought I couldn’t see the whole room. What I didn’t know was that I had a perfect view of the room, it was just filled with so much black smoke, that I could not see the fire. The fire attack team came down to the basement and started to attack the fire, the second team rescued the victim and proceeded to ventilate the upstairs and the smoke layer rose and we could all see the fire very clearly then. I started to exit the shed, when I heard the second team on the top floor start to use negative hydrolic ventilation right above my head. I decided to wait them out and headed out when I heard the water stop. Negative hydrolic ventilation is when the hose team vents smoke out of the house from the inside, using a hose stream aimed out a window, and anyone outside on that side of the house gets soaked! I found Mike and thanked him for letting me watch the action, and told him how exciting it had been.
He was glad that I wanted to hang around and learn what I could by watching the rest of the crew.
I spent the rest of the afternoon absorbing as much information as I could and talking to Mike and his helper, who is a Chief in a neighboring community, and taking pictures for us and for other firefighter’s that had brought cameras. Sometime around now, the grapefruit sized lump in my stomach went away.
The last few times that the teams were sent into the firehouse, the RIT teams were put to work. RIT stands for Rapid Intervention Team, and this team is stationed outside with Incident Command, geared up and ready to enter the building at a moments notice. They maybe used for SAR, FF replacement if something happens to one of the FF or in this case, SAR for a missing FF. In the last exercise, my husband was picked to be the missing man. This is not only used to test the RIT teams, but it also tests the team leader in the building, to see how long it takes for him to realize that one of his team is down. Unknown to the inside teams, the heat had been ‘kicked up a notch’ and was at a severe 700 degrees. Hank grabbed my husband and told him to sit down against the wall behind him and then he stood in front of him and directed the team’s attention to the other side of the room to cover what he had done. My husband later told me that he was glad to have to break, and it didn’t take long for his team leader to discover he was missing and call in the RIT team. They found him right away, and helped him out of the building. As he came out, I watched him take off his regulator and mask and was shocked to see how red his face was. I told him about it, and he said that he wasn’t surprised and told how unbelievably hot it was in there. The last session ended soon afterward, and everyone gathered around for the usual chat. Hank asked everyone how they liked the last time and everyone commented on how hot it was. Hank and Roy then admitted to having Mike increase the temperature to the training level they use for the next level of training. There were grunts of satisfaction and the instructors felt that this team had worked so well together and so hard, that that was their reward. We turned in our tanks, helped carry everything back to the warehouse and then headed back to the classroom.
Hank handed out comment sheets that we were to fill in to ‘grade’ the instructors and the course. After we were done with that, we each were asked to verbally comment on the weekend and what we found the most enjoyable. After this was done, the people that had pre- registered received their certificates, the others would be sent to the halls. Roy asked me if I was disappointed that I hadn’t finished the course, and I was truthful with him and said that at first I was, but after watching everything for the afternoon, I had come the conclusion that I could be just as helpful outside and not everyone has to be on the nozzle in the house. He said that he was glad that I didn’t feel bad, and was looking forward to teaching me again next year. We all said our good-byes and headed home.