Lessons Learned in Firefighter 1: A Probie’s Experience

971769_10151619058074729_1971702331_nWe, as members of a volunteer fire department have our reasons for joining. The reasons are as varied as the people themselves. I had found my passion having been involved in EMS for the past 8 years, but FIRE?!?  FIRE was off limits! That is until a close friend, knowing my passion for helping people and love for the rescue aspect of EMS, suggested I join Colonie Fire Company (“CFC”).

The seed was planted.

It’s not as though I ever thought the job of firefighting was an easy one. Truthfully, I never thought about it at all, and boy was I in for an awakening! Firefighter I gave me only a glimpse into the level of commitment, fortitude, and endurance that is required to get the job done, and to do it well. I had been a probationary member with CFC for five months and was lucky to have extensive in-house training before I began the 91 hour Firefighter I training course to become a New York State certified interior firefighter. CFC and Capt. Boomhower made sure that my two fellow CFC probies, Matt Stott and Brent Lecuyer, and I were well prepared.

Lesson Number One: This is not for everyone!

Day one was like being a new kid on the first day of school; 35 new kids to be exact. Everyone took their seats as they arrived avoiding the front of the class as much as possible. No one spoke a word. Undoubtedly, each of us was surveying the room wondering who these people were, checking out the competition so to speak. As the first class began, the instructors introduced themselves and let us know that while we were starting out with 35 students we would most certainly not finish with 35 students. Firefighting isn’t for everyone, they said. Not everyone can do it, they said.

As a 48 year-old female (albeit a physically fit and strong female) I was definitely a minority and was surely not expected by some to be among those that would finish. I embraced the challenge but was unknowingly about to be pushed beyond my preconceived limits.

Lesson Number Two: The only limits you have are the ones you put on yourself!

To begin, we were broken up into engine companies and officers were assigned. Engine Company No. 1, my engine company, consisted of members from CFC, Midway, and Mariaville. We methodically began to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be firefighters beginning with the basic understanding of what is required for a fire to occur. Throughout the intensive 91 hour course we covered such things as fire service history, fire department organization, command and control, fire fighter safety, personal protective equipment (PPE), self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), fire behavior, fire extinguishers, ropes and knots, building construction, fire prevention and public education, pre-incident planning, communications, forcible entry, protective systems/sprinklers, water supply, hose and appliances, ladders, nozzles, fire streams and foam, self-rescue procedures, rescue procedures, ventilation, salvage and overhaul, live fire suppression, terrorism awareness, and hazardous materials. All of these lessons culminated to a series of “live burn” evolutions that enabled us to apply our new knowledge and skills in a safely monitored and controlled setting.

A skill repeated countless times prior to every practical evolution was effectively donning our PPE and SCBA in 90 seconds; not 91 seconds, 90 seconds. It became a competition amongst engine companies, amongst individuals, and it became fun. Engine Company No. 1 excelled every time!

As the hours went by everyone became familiar with one another. We began talking and joking amongst the instructors and ourselves. More importantly the sense of camaraderie began to build. We all began working and communicating well together, not only within our respective engine companies but everyone as a team, just as it should be on the fire ground!

I was now beginning to be pushed both mentally and physically. I was gaining an understanding that this is a place where cooler heads prevail. We did an evolution in the “maze” that was a combined exercise of a bottle breath down and self-rescue. Imagine being in full PPE, on air, unable to see, crawling on your hands and knees, feeling every inch with your gloved hands as you advance. You and your SCBA now become entangled in low hanging wires and debris and you need to untangle yourself (with minimal movements so as to not make the entanglement worse) in order to move on, only to continue on and find yourself in a space too small to pass through. The only way to pass through is to get flat on your stomach and completely remove your SCBA, pushing it through ahead of you, all while hanging on to it for dear life as IT IS your life line. Once you have passed through what you once thought was the impassable you now have to put your SCBA back on order to safely continue, again all while on your hands and knees (as standing could kill you) feeling every inch of the space that surrounds you with your gloved hands so as to be sure to not fall through a hole in the floor or down a set of stairs and being mindful of where windows are located above you I the event you need to make an escape. This is where cooler heads will prevail. I am learning that this job is as much a mental one as it is a physical one, and I am discovering that I love it!

The physical tasks were many and could be as equally grueling as the mental ones. When one considers that a gallon of water weighs 8.34 lbs., and 150′ of 1 3/4″ hose holds just under 33 gallons, you are pulling approximately 280lbs. In full turn-out gear, on air, advancing a fully charged 1 3/4″ hose line around corners, upstairs and making service loops, TRUST ME, it’s HEAVY regardless of who you are! Backing out a charged hose line was no less difficult than advancing it. Pulling hose line; handling a fully charged hose line, whether you’re on the nozzle or back-up, advancing or backing out; “throwing” ladders, particularly a 35’ extension ladder, on a windy day; “hitting” a hydrant in a timely manner; and hauling tools/saws up a ladder and skillfully performing ventilation all were not without their challenges and required skill, strength, stamina, communication and team work. Every practical evolution became a new challenge to be conquered.

Lesson Number Three: The Fire ground is no place for tunnel vision!

Before our first live burn evolution we were all squeezed in to a room where a corner had been filled with pallets and hay. We were instructed to get on our knees and stay low to the ground. Our instructors explained that the purpose was to observe the progression and behavior of fire, feel the build-up of intense heat, and proper fire suppression. I watched in awe, as it was my first exposure to fire, and was humbled by its raw power. The live burn evolutions proved to be the most rigorous and intense hours of training I would encounter. This was the place where all of our newly acquired knowledge and skills came together.

I learned that the fire ground is no place for silence or complacency. Silence can be deadly. Complacency can be deadly. There is no such thing as “I” or “me” for a firefighter. Two in/two out rule, NEVER leave your partner, and know where your partner and/or team are at all times, communicate, communicate, communicate, and always have an escape route/plan. If you become lost or confused, KEEP A COOL HEAD, call “may-day,” activate your PASS alarm and back out or escape. Because, of all of these things, the fire ground is certainly not the place for tunnel vision. This is a place that is chaotic, and controlled chaos is not only necessary, but also essential to the task at hand and to the safety of your fellow firefighters and yourself. You must be completely aware of yourself, your fellow firefighters, and your surroundings at all times. You must see the BIG picture at all times.

Lesson Number Four: Victory is sweet!

Overall there is no denying that the job of a firefighter is as physical and challenging as a job can get. While I was undoubtedly pushed mentally and physically, beyond my comfort zone, I found myself adapting and succeeding at every turn. I not only accepted the challenge, I exceeded my own expectations as well as those of a few others. I surpassed what I thought were my mental and physical limitations. There is so much more to learn, and as times change and advances are continually made the learning will never stop.

On June 8, 2013 I graduated with 26 fellow firefighters. Victory is sweet.

 

As the first class began, the instructors introduced themselves and let us know that while we were starting out with 35 students we would most certainly not finish with 35 students. Firefighting isn’t for everyone they said. Not everyone can do it they said…

IT’S FOR ME I said! I CAN DO IT I said!

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