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FIREFIGHTER FOR A DAY | Part I: FireOps 101 is a chance to see what they face
About a third of the way up the 105-foot ladder leaned against the roof of a six-story tower, my legs begin to burn.
It's not just the 40-degree angle or gravity pulling on you, it's the additional 40 pounds of bunker gear and air tank that you have to wear for what's probably waiting at the top. By the 10th step, it's an effort to lift the giant boots to the next rung.
At about halfway, I yelled back to my firefighter shadow, Jesse Mitchell of Valley Regional Fire Authority.
"OK, let's make camp here and summit in the morning," I said over my shoulder and heard Jesse chuckle.
But there's no time and no place to rest. You have to push on.
The higher you get on the ladder, the wobblier it gets until the last third, reaching the final way to the ledge of the building, when the whole ladder seems to bounce and jiggle with every heavy step.
At the top, the smiling face of our instructor, a Captain from the Kennewick Fire Department, told me to kneel on the top rung and catch my breath.
"Look around," he said. "Enjoy the view."
Holding tight to the sides of the ladder, I breathed deep and looked around, taking in the entire HAMMER Training Facility below me, with my fellow "probies" looking like ants on the ground below.
"Now remember," said the Captain, handing me a 20-pound bar used to help break through a roof. "That's just the commute. The actual work starts now."
The point of FireOps 101, an annual event sponsored by the International Association of Firefighters District 7, is to give policymakers and the occasional media member an idea of what the job is like for firefighters in hopes that they will remember when it comes budget time.
It is highly successful.
Each "probie," or rookie candidate is put through the paces at a series of props stationed throughout the Volpentest HAMMER Training and Education Center in Richland that simulate the type of events firefighters face all the time.
There is a search and rescue through a smokey house with zero visibility, a car fire, a "megacode" CPR event, the ladder and roof cut simulator, a car extrication and, of course, the burn house, a fire-filled building that each probie has a chance to put out.
The difference, of course, is that each prop is given its own time and emphasis, when in the real world, a single call often contains multiple props, such as climbing the ladder 105 feet only to get to the smoke-filled maze, ending in the burn house.
It's an intense eight-hour look into the lives of the men and women whose job it is to protect us from fire every day.
And it is not easy.
I was invited to FireOps this year by the good folks at IAFF Local 1352, the union that staffs the Valley Regional Fire Authority in Auburn. They paid for my trip and my hotel while there.
Representatives from Renton, Kent and most other South Sound cities were also on hand with officials from their coverage area.
My shadow, Jesse Mitchell, is a five-year veteran of the department and the union's political liaison. He's a fun, gregarious man who enjoys a good time and a good laugh, but when the call comes in – even a fake call like the ones I was answering – Mitchell is all business.
And for good reason. Every step – even in the controlled environment of a training site – is dangerous when dealing with fire.
Mitchell said for the most part the day is similar to the training firefighters go through, though he admits it is rare that all of the events happen in a single shift, even if some do often come together.
The hope is that by the end of the day, the policymaker or journalist has a better understanding of what it's like to answer the call.
"We think they'll make better political decisions if they're informed," Mitchell said.
The day begins early – too early for a journalist, really – with a safety briefing. On top of the usual messages about the danger of the job, our group got a special message on heat stress, due to expected temperatures near 100 degrees in Richland last week.
Inside the bunker gear, which not only keeps the heat out, but also traps it in, it gets much hotter. Toss in the stress of breathing through a mask, the work of dragging a hose or climbing a ladder and the sheer nerves of walking into a smoke- and fire-filled building and it can be extremely hot and sweaty work.
Throughout the day, our blood pressure and pulse rate were monitored and we were encouraged to drink gallons of water as we made our way around the course.
We were each also provided with a water bottle complete with the FireOps slogan ("Feel the Heat") and the three key components the union wanted to make sure we understood: Time critical, highly technical and labor intensive.
After the safety warnings, we were instructed to gear-up. Valley provided me with the gear, a pair of heavy rubber boots, bunker pants and coat, a hood and helmet, as well as a mask I had to have fitted and tested to make sure it fit properly. Then came the air tank strapped to my back.
It is not an easy thing to get together, especially quickly – another essential element of the job and they were sure to let us know.
"You are now two minutes past where a firefighter is supposed to be dressed at," we were told as I struggled into the gear.
Search and rescue
Our first prop was the search-and-rescue house. After checking our gear and securing our breathing masks, Jesse and I crawled into the house, which was filled with smoke.
With absolutely no way to see, I had to feel along the wall with my right hand and drag the hose with my left, all while crawling along the floor and then up the steps to the second floor. We crawled into a room, and as I felt around, I found a dummy lying on a bunk. I passed the hose to Jesse, grabbed the dummy under the arms and followed Jesse back down the stairs and out of the house.
The dummy could not have weighed more than 90 pounds, but that was enough. I knew right then, during the first event, that I could not be a firefighter. I am in decent shape, but you still don't want to rely on me to drag you out of a burning house.