Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

What do you do, as a firefighter, if you are injured, lost, stuck, or otherwise incapacitated while inside a burning building? The answer might be obvious to you from an objective perspective: you call for help! But it's not as easy as all that when you're on the fireground. There are, unfortunately, many reasons that firefighters don't call for help when they should. Some of it is machismo, because you don't want to be the guy who others had to come in and carry out. Some of it is unavoidable: if you're unconcious, you aren't going to be able to call for help. But a lot of the reluctance to call for assistance from other firefighters is just a misunderstanding of the situation that you're in. If a piece of roof falls on you trapping you underneath, you might believe that if you just wriggle the right way you'll be able to escape. So you struggle, and push, and strain trying to get yourself free. By the time you realize how truly stuck you are, you've exhausted all your energy and are probably running low on air. The team who comes in to try to save you may only have 5 minutes or less before your air runs out, and it's going to be hard to find you in that amount of time.

A big part of our training last saturday was to be made aware of those facts first and foremost. As soon as you get in trouble of any kind, as soon as the situation stops going the way you expected it to, you need to start calling for help immediately. That at least gives the firefighters who are coming to get you a bigger margin of time to get to you, and you can always send them back if you manage to escape by yourself.

Then we got to play in the maze.

In full bunker gear, with breathing tanks on, and blindfolded with a translucent film over our facepiece, we had to crawl through a maze that simulates many of the hazards found in a structure fire. You'd be crawling along, and a large piece of wood would fall on top of you (helped along by your sadistic coach). Now you're being crushed, and you just have to hope you've got enough wiggle room to get to your radio:

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday"

Command: "All units hold for emergency traffic. Unit calling mayday, go ahead."

"Crew Vizitei is trapped on 1st floor, Charlie quadrant, near side 3 while performing Primary Search. Please dispatch RIT team."

Command: "RIT team is en route, Crew Vizitei, attempt self-rescue"

Now in general, this went pretty well. However, none of us were actually scared or worked up. We knew that even though we were pretty well trapped, it was just our coach who was holding the weight down on top of us or tangling us up in a cord or whatever, and that if we were to get in any serious distress he'd cut us loose. That meant that our radio traffic was pretty smooth and understandable. But it isn't like that in real life. We watched a video that day that would send chills down anybody's neck.

If you watch that all the way through, what you hear will scare the hell out of you. That firefighter captain went back in by himself to retrieve victims and became trapped on the 5th floor. When you hear him speak over the radio, you can tell he's under real duress, and that he isn't sure if he's coming out alive, and it makes it almost impossible to understand him. Can you tell what he's saying? Where he is? I can only imagine trying to control my voice to make sure others can understand me while my mind is gradually becoming more certain that I'm not going to make it.

So although we now know what to do, this is one of those skills we're learning that I hope I never have to use.

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