Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Feeling the heat

Firefighters can keep their jobs

The smoke closed in like a dark shroud descending. Flames in a nearby corner had rendered the room an oven. I felt like I was being baked alive.

My ears, forehead and scalp seemed uncovered, exposed, even though they were under a helmet and hood.

My eyes were open but unseeing. Tunnel vision would have been better than this sensation of dark walls closing in.

I sounded like Darth Vader, breathing from an air tank. I could feel my heart beating fast, but I tried ignoring it.

Like I tried ignoring the insistent internal voice urging me to get out of there.

Fire College Day taught me that I'm not the stuff that firefighters are made of.

Hosted by the Cincinnati Fire Department and its union, the event last Friday was designed to give a few dozen politicians and media members a taste of firefighting.

Facing my fears

I mean it when I say taste. The smell and taste of smoke linger for hours afterward.

As did the impression that this event was designed to solidify politicians' stated resolve to protect the fire services from city budget cutters, who by December must chop $35 million from city government.

On Friday morning we met our “shadows,” real firefighter partners, outside the department's High Intensity Fire Building, a two-story brick structure on an aromatic patch of land next to the Sanitation Department.

The professionals had set fire to a stack of pallets in a first-floor room and called in us newbies for a lecture. After a couple of minutes, it was too hot to stand; we kneeled or crouched. Smoke obscured everything.

Curtis Chandler, my shadow, explained that this was “clean smoke.” The stuff they encounter at real fires is darker, more noxious. Suddenly, the back pain from my awkwardly slipping air tank seemed comforting.

They let us crawl outside for a few minutes. Then my group was ordered back in. We each took turns dragging a hose to within a few feet of the flames, pulling back the nozzle and letting loose the water.

Knocking down those story-high flames felt powerful. I felt I was facing my fears, in control.

That didn't last. After we crawled out for a drink of water, we went back in for search and rescue.

Upstairs, away from the flames, blinding smoke was the enemy. Firefighters don't walk upright; they crawl to stay below the heat and smoke. We were told to hold on to each other's boot heels, to touch the walls to guide ourselves around a corner toward the exit.

Search and rescue

We got a brief glimpse through a thermal imaging camera. It was like someone had turned on a light. But because Cincinnati's fire department has only 13 of the cameras for its 40 firehouses, we were told to do without it, like most fire crews.

I almost crawled over the “wounded” firefighter lying in my path. I and my partner, another trainee, shook him and shouted — but he didn't budge.

Behind us, an instructor shouted at us to turn the man's body so his head pointed in the direction we were heading and then grab and pull.

The man weighed about 150 pounds. We moved him an inch or two each tug. I admit it: I considered leaving him.

Finally, magnificently, we reached a door.

I held back my cowardice a few seconds more as my partner crawled out, dragging the fallen firefighter.

I crawled out after them. I tried to stop shaking. I told Mr. Chandler that he and his colleagues were crazy and could keep their jobs.

Then I realized that if I were on City Council trying to cut a budget, the fire department's allocation would be safe with me.

E-mail or phone 768-8395


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