Wednesday, February 25, 2009


"Ok, we got Crew Stone, standby on side 1"

This is it, we're finally going to get to play with real fire. My crew has just parked their vehicles, and we have all donned our gear before checking in with the "Incident Commander". Picking our boy Chris Stone as crew leader, it's time to go to work. I glance around as we wait a moment for Stone to dish out assignments. Here we are, the big burn building looming over us, charred in places from the hundreds of times firefighters have trained in this building. At my back, dwarfed by the structure, is the reserve engine 1308, ready to send huge amounts of water with us towards the blaze. It's nothing short of exciting.

Stone: "Berkel, you get the nozzle! Stoops, tools! Vizitei, vent fan!"

Assignments are handed out, and we all start moving at once to the compartment on the firetruck where the air packs were stored. Flipping open the door, we all try our hardest to show that we'd actually learned something last saturday when we were practicing this. I pull the release on my pack, and jerk it off it's mount as quickly as I dare. Glancing at the air gauge, I see about 4200 PSI, well above the required minimum of 4000. To my left I hear one of my crewmates shout over the rumbling of the fire truck: "I have a pack at 33,000! It's too low!". Our instructor calls back: "Good job! Always check! Now go ahead and use it, it will be OK for what we're doing!". Meanwhile I've shoved the pack over my head and have pulled all the straps tight around my body. Time to get the fan.

As I'm dragging the ventilation fan away from the engine, I glance around at all my crewmates (my peripherals being cut off by the mask I'm wearing). There's Berkel, tall and lanky, tossing out segments of the hose, dragging it over to the door. Stone is already disappearing around the side of the building, doing his size up from all sides. Stoops, having pulled the married set of irons from the truck, is helping get the hose ready for entry.

Instructor: "Let's go, guys! There's a fire in there, we don't have time to play around! Get your stuff done and get ready to get in there!"

Parking the fan next to the door, I turn it away as trained, and give the startup cord one sharp pull.

Fan: "Sputter...sputter..cough..."

Awesome. I give it a few more yanks just to be sure the first one was hard enough, but it ain't starting. I begin to fiddle with every switch on the damn thing, trying to find the choke, pulling the cord again every few seconds to check my progress. Finally, after yanking an unmarked bar away from the fan body, I'm rewarded with a roar as the fan starts blowing away. Pleased, I throttle it up, and step back while Berkel clears any air out of the hose by running water through it. Stone has just made it back around to our side of the building and has started radioing back to command, but I can't hear anything he's saying over the noise of the vent fan. Finally he comes to stand next to the other three of us and shouts: "Two exposures and a gas line on side 3! Smoke showing from the second story!"

The instructor steps forward to prepare us to get inside.

Instructor: "Alright, we're standing by, that means everybody needs to be in position with their regulator in one hand, and their tool in the other" (the regulator is the mouth-piece for your airpack, we don't want to start breathing air off of the pack until we need it) "Everybody should be along the hose. Nozzle-man, nozzle in one hand, regulator in the other. Next in line..." (pointing at me) "hose in one hand, regulator in the other." (I snap the regulator off my belt and clutch it in my left hand) "Tool-man, married set in one hand. Crew leader, radio in one hand. Now we wait for orders. When command tells us to move, we don't waste any time. You will snap those regulators into place and we will get to work!"

I hear the radio crackle in Stone's hand, and my heart starts beating a little faster.

Radio: "...[crackle]....Crew Stone, this is Command. make entry side one....[crackle]..."
Instructor: "Let's GO, boys!"

We all push our regulators against our face and snap them to the left, blinking as the first puff of air hits us in the face. Then it's time to work. Berkel heads in through the door to the stairwell and starts dragging the hose up to the second story. Here there's a landing with a closed door to the room where the fire is being stoked. The four of us, at the instructors command, haul up enough hose into the landing to supply us into the room, and then crouch by the door.

Instructor: "Ass down, gentlemen! When in a fire you stay low to the ground! Now, let's get in there!"

The door opens and we start crawling into the main room, dragging hose with us. There in the corner is a pile of wood and excelsior, with another firefighter standing near it bearing a road flare. As we move along the wall, we can feel the hands of our instructor pushing us back down any time we try to stand up to move more easily.

Instructor: "Stay down and along the wall!"

At a signal from the training chief who's in the building with us, the road flare touches the pile of fuel, and the room begins to glow.


The chief starts into his lecture on pyrolysis and the behaviour of the fire, but our attention is mostly focused on the sheer power radiating from in front of us. Crouched behind Berkel (our nozzle-man), I can feel heat rolling over his shoulders and onto my neck. Our heartbeats start picking up even further and I can hear the increased air consumption as everyone's regulators start puffing more and more often. We're excited. Finally the chief gives the order to fire a burst of water to cool the fire a bit.


The hose kicks as Berkel opens up towards the top of the flaming column, and it stops just as quickly as he shuts it off. Suddenly we feel the temperature go up as all the steam from the water he just fired settles around us. Who would have thought that we would be making the room even hotter by trying to put water on the flame? The chief keeps talking for a minute, and then it's my turn to cycle up and feel the flame from the nozzle position. I crawl forward on the hose and Berkel retreats to the rear of the crew. Picking up the nozzle in my hands, I push myself up against the wall to steady myself, and take in the bright glow of the flaming mass in front of me. Seeing it from behind another person is one thing, but now I'm bearing the full brunt of the radiant heat hitting me in the chest. I can see the flames licking across the ceiling, embers flying from the blaze in all directions, the blinding brightness piercing through my mask to light up my eyes. No one can see me behind my mask, so I permit myself a huge grin while my breathing speeds up even more. The order comes in to fire, so I grab the bale on the nozzle and pull it open, letting the force of the kickback wash through my coiled limbs like shock absorbers on an SUV. I crank it closed again and survey my work as the flames have shrunk down to a more manageable size again.

After everybody's had a turn, we back off, and pull out of the building, where our instructor tells us to take off our masks and go wait for him off to the side. Once he's not looking anymore, we start high-fiving like junior high students. When he comes back, though, the four of us put on our serious faces again and nod silently as he gives us a debriefing on what we just went through. The instructor talks through the fire development, gives some encouragement about improving some points in our tactics, and again admonishes us about moving with a purpose. Then he goes silent for a second as he surveys our faces, and the corners of his mouth twist upwards.

Instructor: "Ok, guys, NOW we can smile. That was pretty cool huh?"


  1. Just wait until you get on the truck and go to your first structure fire... so much faster and even more adrenaline rushing through your veins.

  2. What an amazing recount! I felt like I was there with you on that training.