The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t see or hear anything. And on top of that, I could barely breathe.
My knees and hands already hurt from the rough steel floor. The hose I was helping to drag weighed a ton, despite that the two other guys in front of me knew what they were doing and were holding up their end better than I was. When I tried to lift my head, my helmet smacked against the top of the airtank cinched on my back, forcing me to look at the floor or squat back on my heels. But I was previously told to stay as low as I could, so that didn’t seem like a good idea. In any case, my face mask was halfway fogged up, so all I could see — and that dimly — was a dull red glow at an indeterminate distance ahead.
The man closest to me, who had previously told me to stay an arm’s length behind him, turned his head in my direction. “Flaghhh! Flagghhn!” he shouted above the muffled white noise of fire and smoke generators and the clicking whine of my airtank.
“What? I can’t hear you!” I replied.
He gestured me forward, then put his mask close to mine. “Flagghn toff the fire!” he said urgently, and crawled forward.
I scooted forward along with him, crawling past a sheet of flame under the stairs to my right and toward the further glow which resolved itself into an upward-licking fountain of fire boiling up to and against the ceiling.
The man in front of him aimed the hose nozzle at the fountain. Through my soaking leather gloves, I felt the canvas tube jerk softly as he opened the nozzle, sweeping it in an arc parallel to the floor.
My breathing became labored and painful. I felt like I was trying to suck the whole airtank into my mouth with each desperate breath. My chest hurt and I fought the urge to claw the constricting mask from my face.
“I can’t breathe!” I shouted.
No one heard me.
I tapped the shoulder of the man in front of me. He leaned toward me, a caricatured shadow against the leaping flame behind him.
“I can’t breathe!” I repeated.
I’m not sure what happened next. I think he managed to hear me, and communicate my distress to the man in front of him, then pointed behind me. Somehow or other, I found myself crawling toward the door by which we’d entered, keeping my right hand on the wall so I wouldn’t get disoriented. The safety officer opened the door for me, and I stood up and outside in one motion, trying calmly but desperately to reach the fresh sweet air millimeters away on the other side of my protective headgear.
Succeeding with careful dignity, I inhaled deeply and walked over to sit down on a low brick wall edging some bushes behind the Valley of the Moon main firehouse.
It was 8:30 a.m., Sunday, April 28, 2002. I had just had my first real taste of structural firefighting, and I felt like a wuss.
Cut to a month or so earlier…
When I first returned to the Index-Tribune and was heartily reacquainting myself with the “fire guys,” I was discussing what I’d missed with a longtime and close contact who had since become the training officer for the entire Valley fire service. He’s one of the local “old-timers” hereabouts, one of four or six with whom I used to chat (frequently and happily) and who exude the quietly confident competence that’s particular to people who have done what they love for so long that it’s first nature to them. The annual Valley volunteer fire academy was just starting up, and as I love to write the stories behind the stories — especially about the fire guys, who before Sept. 11 were commonly perceived to be doing nothing all day except waiting for the alarm to ring — I asked him if there would be anything particularly interesting to tell people about.
“Well, we’ll be having the fire trailer come down here,” he said. “How do you feel about putting on turnouts and an SCBA and doing some live fire training?”
I replied as I usually do (and as he and everyone else in the Valley fire service expects) when a similar suggestion is made.
“Cooooool!” I breathed. “When?”
The arrangements were made, and we spoke again a day or two beforehand.
“Should I bring my yellows?” I asked, referring to the wildland turnouts (Nomex protective clothing), emblazoned “PRESS,” which I wear when covering big grass fires.
“No,” he said. “Structural firefighting is a whoooole different ballgame.”
Something in the way he said that sent a tickle of apprehension through my brain. He asked me if I was claustrophobic and if I’d ever done any scuba diving, then when I said “no,” asked if I felt okay about using a SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus, or airtank and mask) with only five minutes’ instruction.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what I was getting into. Then he asked me for my shoe, pant and jacket sizes, and said he’d also get me some gloves and a helmet.
I arrived at the VOM station around 8 a.m. to find a couple of dozen men standing around the main engine bay in various states of firefighter undress, checking airtanks and other equipment and making small talk. My contact introduced me to one of the fire captains (we both felt we’d met before, but couldn’t tell) who proceeded to suit me up and briefly train me in the art of how to stay alive and breathing inside a burning building.
First I tried on the boots, then the jacket, then took off the boots and jacket so I could pull the boot-tops up inside the pants and put both on in two smooth motions. This is why the protective gear is called “turnouts” — you keep them at the foot of your stationhouse bunk so that when you turn out to answer the alarm at 3 a.m., you can slide into the boots and pull the pants up to your waist, slipping the suspenders (yes, they’re red) over your shoulders. I donned the coat, slipping my thumbs through the loops in the ends of the sleeves which keep the sleeves from riding up and exposing bare arm-flesh to the flame’s tender kiss. Everything fit me as though it had been tailored. I told the firefighters that my wife wanted to know if I could borrow the turnouts for the evening, and they laughed heartily and knowingly.
Next, a white Nomex hood went over my head and bunched down around my neck. The breathing mask went on, held by netting and straps and surprisingly forming a tight seal despite my short beard. Then the Nomex hood was pulled up over my neck and the top of my head, slightly obscuring the edges of the faceplate which had already begun to fog slightly.
The fire captain explained the workings of the SCBA tank — how to turn it on, how to connect it to the mask, how to disconnect it without losing any of its 20-minute air supply. After a quick run-through, we left the bay and walked toward the Mobile Live Fire Trainer parked behind the station.
This was a huge blue semi trailer with a six-foot by eight-foot hut sitting on top, which I later learned was one of the simulator’s three rooms — the upper “bedroom,” connected by internal stairs to a “kitchen” and “hazmat storage area” (think “paintcan-filled garage”) below. Propane jets and peanut-oil burners provided the fire and smoke inside the non-flammable trailer. As explained by the man in charge of the simulator, the captain and I and one other firefighter were to be a team which would go inside the “house,” crawl past a burning wall to knock down the fire in the hazmat area, pull back, climb the burning stairs to quench the bedroom (after passing our hands under the “bed” to check for “victims”), then reverse course downstairs and douse the kitchen.
As narrated at the beginning of this piece, I didn’t do so well. But our team was one of several cruising through the simulator in various rotations, so I vowed to do better on the next session. (The captain and other firefighter, who had completed their rotation without me, graciously told me I wasn’t at all a wimp and asked me if I wanted to be nozzleman on our next attack. I told them I’d think about it.) Meanwhile, I had caught my breath, and walked around doing my reporter thing, talking to some people I knew and a few I didn’t. (I always enjoy that part, and sprinkled with the interviews were quite a few “Welcome back!”s from people I didn’t know I had missed when I was away.)
The next rotation was a slightly different scenario: We were to climb an external ladder to the bedroom, carefully enter it (“There’s a foot-and-a-half drop that’ll knock you on your ass if you’re not careful,” warned the trainer), knock down the flames against the far wall, then proceed down the burning stairs, make a hairpin right into the corridor leading to the garage, douse the garage, then double back into the kitchen and put out the fire there. The captain asked me again if I wanted to be the nozzleman, and I heard myself saying, “Sure.”
I climbed the ladder, connected my airtank to the face mask, and stood waiting while the other members of my team flaked out the hose on top of the trailer. Now that I had been through this already, and had learned of the simulator’s fool-proof safety features, I was a bit more prepared. I realized that my earlier breathing problems weren’t caused by panic so much as ignorance — I had never used an airtank or been in a situation where I had to regulate my breathing, so I took steady, deep breaths as we prepared to go inside.
I pushed open the door to the burning bedroom, stepped over the edge and crouched low on the deck, clutching the hose and nozzle with my right arm and hand while my left grasped the nozzle-release lever. Take that, I thought as I opened the hose.
The water blasted into the base of the flame-wall on the other side of the room. “Sweep it!” came the muffled yell from the fire captain behind me. I slowly swept the nozzle from side to side, quickly dousing the fire.
Wow, I thought. That’s pretty cool.
“Down the stairs!” shouted the captain over the omnipresent din.
I crawled forward and paused at the brink, seeing flames licking a foot or two below me. “Just go ahead!” he shouted, barely audible.
I slowly descended the stairs, dropped to hands and knees, and, waved on by the safety officer sitting in the corner, turned right 180 degrees and dragged the hose with me.
This time I paid attention to my breathing, which while still labored was a lot less difficult. Approaching the flaming garage like Charles Atlas’ reborn 98-pound weakling returning to face the beachfront bully, I braced against the wall to my left and opened the nozzle.
“Closer!” shout-whispered the captain behind me.
I scooted a bit closer, directing the water jet toward what I thought was the base of the flames slightly above the garage floor. But I couldn’t see through the thick smoke! I could see my hands holding the hose, and I could bloody well see the fire, but the water jet might as well have been invisible. I swept it back and forth anyway, but nothing happened.
The captain’s hands reached around me, pulling the nozzle sharply upward. I saw the flames billow back against the aqueous intrusion, nodded, and swept with gusto. The flames flickered, hung on for about 20 seconds, then went out. Gotcha, I thought, shutting off the nozzle.
Then a fresh sheet of fire broke out about three feet above the first, washing the ceiling in lambent scarlet. I swore, then attacked it in calm fury.
When that enemy had been routed, I swore again when the lower bank re-ignited. But I grimly set to the task a third time, wondering if this was one of the unpredictable conditions faced by firefighters when they’re doing this for real.
Slowly, I became aware of a burning sensation at two points on my left cheek. With alarm, I realized it was the metal buckles on my face-mask straps beginning to heat up. If they don’t get any hotter, I’ll be okay, I thought. Uncomfortable, but okay. I continued spraying the burning garage wall.
They began to get really hot. Painfully so.
DAMN IT! I screamed to myself. Here we go again. I continued sweeping the garage wall, and when it was finally out, I motioned to the captain. “My face is burning,” I shouted calmly, tapping my face. “I think I need to leave.”
He nodded, then shouted “Back out and up the stairs!”
I didn’t know he meant that literally. The flames extinguished, I dropped the hose (breaking rule #1, as I learned later) and turned my back on the now-smoking garage (breaking rule #2), headed down the corridor, climbed the stairs and went through the bedroom to the sunny Sunday morning outside.
Postscript: As I told a couple of longtime fire service contacts before I left the VOM station, “I’ve been covering the fire beat for three years, but I don’t think I really understood it until today. It’s one thing to know this stuff from the outside — it’s quite another to be engulfed by it. And even though I’ve pretty much understood why you guys do this, I didn’t understand how. Thanks for shooting my personal learning curve through the roof!”