Hot Dark Confusion

Last night’s Citizen’s Fire Academy class was a demonstration of the protective gear that firefighters wear, from the boots and bunker gear to the air packs and masks.  After demonstrating the features of the gear and how it is used, we were given the chance to wear it.  They fitted us with full bunker gear and an air pack and mask.  They were originally intending to send us into a smoke filled room, but their smoke generator wasn’t working.  Since they wanted us to experience what it was like in a fire they covered our masks and turned out the lights.  In a real fire it is unlikely that you’ll be able to see anything, so you have to rely on your hearing and sense of touch. 

They sent us in in groups of three.  We were on our hands and knees, following a hose line and holding on to the person in front of us.  They stressed how important it was to keep contact with your team members and with the hose line.  In a real fire the hose line would be your life line if you had to escape.

It’s hard to describe just how disorienting the experience was.  To get an idea, you first have to consider the bunker gear itself.  It’s got a layer of insulation inside to protect you against heat in a fire.  But that insulation is just as effective at keeping heat in.  It was somewhere around 75°F last night, which is fairly comfortable until you put on the gear.  You’ll start sweating before you even have a chance to zip up the coat.  After you get this stuff on, you have a hood (kind of like a balaclava) that covers you head.  You put that on and then pull it down in preparation for putting on the mask.  The mask has to fit tightly against your face to get an airtight seal.  Once that’s in place you pull up the hood and make sure it covers the edges of the mask.  The goal of this operation is to ensure that you have no exposed skin.  If you do, you’ll likely be burned.

By this time you’re starting to notice that it seems harder to breathe.  While you’re getting plenty of air through the front of the mask, it seems unnatural.  The next item to go on is the helmet, which has its own integral hood that helps cover the back of your neck.  The helmet has to be snug enough to stay on, but not so snug that it dislodges the mask.  Finally, the hose assembly from the airpack is attached to the mask.  The system has a check valve that requires you to take a deep breath to get the air flowing.  If your mask isn’t properly sealed, or the valve is a little too strong, it might seem like it’s never going to flow. 

So now you’ve got all the equipment on and you have to remember that you can breathe.  That you’re getting enough air and to breathe normally or you’ll use up the tank too soon.  Now you line up with your team and wait to go in.  Every few seconds your airpack’s integrated electronics beep at you if you don’t move, so you have to shake the thing to let it know you’re not incapacited.  Now all of you get on the floor and start crawling in, holding on to the ankle of the person in front of you and the hose line.  You can’t see anything.  The only way you can interact with your environment is through touch and sound.  Just as the lead member of your group finds the item you’re seeking, you start to hear chirping and bells.  Is it your pack?  No, your lead’s tank is almost empty.  It only has a few minutes left.  You now all have to turn around and make your way back, trying to go more quickly as the beeping and ringing get louder and more insistent.  You finally reach the outside and have to get back on your feet, which is difficult with the extra weight on your back and the disorientation.  Once you finally get the gear off you realize you’re drenched in sweat.  The whole exercise, from entry to exit, took five minutes or less.

This was just a short exercise to get an idea of what firefighters face whenever they have to enter a burning building.  We were only in there for five minutes (maybe less, it was hard to tell), and on the air tanks for a few minutes more as we got ready.  The tanks are rated for 45 minutes, although in reality that means about 30 minutes of actual use (our lead’s tank ran out because a lot of people had used it before him; real firefighters have their own packs with a reserve tank).  It would take tremendous physical stamina to be able to wear that gear for 30 minutes in the heat of a fire (or even our typical summer heat) without collapsing from heat stroke.  Additionally, the equipment is pretty confining.  If you’re claustrophobic, the gear may be intolerable (more so in our case, since the masks were covered to simulate fire conditions).  In fact, we had a couple of people who got suited up in preparation for going into the room and then had to have the gear removed.

I always knew that firefighters had a hot, strenuous, and dirty job.  But I didn’t really appreciate just how strenuous it was until last night. 

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