Saturday, November 22, 2008

Basic Fire Fighting at the Broward Fire Academy

Every crew's worst nightmare

For our final day of SCTW '95 class, which concluded the Basic Fire Fighting portion, we had to be at Broward Fire Academy by 9 a.m.

After we were given the correct fitting pants, jacket, and boots, we then went to a classroom where a firefighter instructed us on how to assemble, wear and operate a fire fighter's air pack, which is a little bit smaller than a SCUBA tank and is worn with the cylinder upside down so the first stage regulator won't get caught on any hanging debris or wires.

This is Harry, who decided on a complete career change recently. He's getting his 200-ton yachtmaster license, which will enable him to drive superyachts like a good-sized 150-footer. The larger the boat, the more the captain gets paid. Salary goes by the meter for most crew personnel.

Three out of these people are already captains taking this class to renew their SCTW licenses, which last five years before expiring. Most of us in the class were newbies.

We each had to extinguish two outside fires, this one above using a dry chemical extinguisher, and another fire with a carbon dioxide extinguisher. Dry chem smothers the fire, and the freezing cold C02 extinguisher sucks all the oxygen out of the air, preventing the fire from burning. If you have a fire near electronic equipment, say in the wheel house, you don't want to use dry chem because it is highly corrosive and will rust metal within one day. However, you can't use a C02 extinguisher inside without good ventilation because you won't be able to breathe.

Not that you can tell, but this is me looking really, really sexy wearing 20 pounds of non-breathable protective clothing and a 30-pound air pack. This was just before attaching the regulator to the mask a la Darth Vader for the "Find Dead Fred" exercise, which entails crawling on hands and knees in a pitch-black apartment to locate a fallen victim and dragging his 170-pound ass out to safety. During this exercise, for which I was designated the team leader, my mask malfunctioned which set off the high-pitched "leak alarm" on my air pack. Since there wasn't any smoke for this exercise, the firefighter shut off my air to quell the alarm, so not only was I wearing 50 pounds of equipment in this hot, un-airconditioned Florida apartment, but I also had on a wool hood which protects your face and ears, and a plastic mask strapped over my face with no fresh air coming in. It was steamy and hot and disgusting. But we found Fred and rescued the dummy.

The last exercise was the scariest for me, because the inside temperature of the above training trailer was 500 degrees at floor level, to 700 degrees at standing height. In teams of three, we climbed the ladder to the roof. Then we descended another interior ladder one at a time and got into position. Each member of the team has particular function, and we each took turns being the lead firefighter who hoses the fire. The most dangerous part of using the hose is steam. One gallon of water creates 1700 cubic feet of steam in a house fire, so you have to be really careful not to use a lot of water. The protective gear is great against dry heat, but steam can permeate through your jacket and pants and cook you like a lobster. I fared well, but one of the girls in class fainted from the heat. Of course the firemen took great care and revived her no problem. It was inferno hot!

As dark as it was in the trailer, the firemen kept it ventilated so it was relatively smoke-free for us. One guy told me that a burning building is pitch black inside from smoke and they have zero visibility. So completely blind, roasting hot, and crawling on their knees, because it's cooler near the floor, they locate the fire by feeling the radiant heat increase in temperature! Talk about job stress.

I had a great day, a lot of fun, and learned a tremendously valuable skill set. If I ever had to experience my own Poseidon Adventure. . .

. . . I'm confident I won't panic and will be able to properly handle the equipment to keep safe the best I can the passengers, my crewmates, and myself.

I think firemen are the best, and I'm sure you do too. I can assure you, however, that I have even more respect and admiration for these guys now that I've walked in their big rubber boots and experienced for myself how hot, heavy, tiring, and uncomfortable this equipment it, how scary their job is, and how easily things can go wrong. I wonder if fire fighters aren't actually badass angels in disguise.

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