With somewhere around 45 pounds of protective gear on my back during an 85 degree summer day, I felt like I was suffocating as I prepared to enter the smoking building filled with flames in front of me.
The large, common-issue fireman’s oxygen mask only released oxygen when I inhaled, creating a vacuum when I exhaled that made it feel as if I could never get enough air. The feeling of fighting for air intensified as I struggled to fight the fire inside, until I was hyperventilating and gasped that I couldn’t stop the fire, I couldn’t breathe.
On that day, I was able to exit the building, catch my breath and get a sip of water. But, for a real firefighter, there is no option to back out.
I was one of dozens of policy makers, community leaders, firefighters and others gathered at the Bellevue Fire Department Training Center for the Fire Ops 101 event, which was being held for the first time in Bellevue on Monday, Aug. 3.
Designed by the IAFF, an organization that represents more than 300,000 full-time professional firefighters and paramedics in the United States and Canada, the day-long event is meant to show decision-makers just what a firefighter goes through on any given day.
The various scenarios are meant to expose the challenges in staffing, equipment and response time, as well as the physical and mental strength that firefighters must possess.
The teams of participants in Bellevue underwent scenarios like responding to a cardiac arrest, extricating a car crash victim from a car, searching for victims in an actual smoke-filled building, and entering a burning building to put out a fire with a firehose.
Aboard the fire department rigs and ambulances, every decision and every minute was vital. More often than not, firefighters are fighting the clock, although we were assured that it is extremely rare for cars to blow up after crashes like they do in movies.
Each participant was assisted by a firefighter “shadow,” who would also generally give additional insight into their career combating fires.
While it is safe to say that the value of firefighters in modern day America isn’t unappreciated, the full extent to which the slightest budgetary concerns or changes impacted their operations was made clear.
For example, the hydraulic tool commonly known as the “jaws of life” generally runs around $10,000, and is one of several tools the teams used in motor vehicle extrication. Participants were also reminded that many fire department teams were smaller than the groups we were working in (many local departments have about three people to a team, and Seattle is considered lucky to have four firefighters to a team).
That is to say nothing of the appropriate levels of physical strength or the training required. While my shadow reminded me that no firefighters in their first day of training undergo what we went did, it was hard to imagine doing it after weeks of training.
After six hours, most, if not all of us, were exhausted. With a large smile on my face from relief, exhaustion, adrenaline, or some combination of the three, I almost missed one of the firefighters off-hand remarks as I high-fived him upon my exit: In the real world, I would have been far from done with my shift. After six hours of testing myself physically and mentally, I would have still had another 18 hours on my shift, and no foresight of what challenge I would face next.