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Fighting fire with the pros

Not many people can say they have suited up as a firefighter and gone through training procedures? But that is exactly what I was able to do Oct. 4 during Fire Prevention Week.
John Cairns got a first-hand experience into what it is like for firefighters to do their jobs on a regular basis. His conclusion? He is just not cut out for firefighting work.

Not many people can say they have suited up as a firefighter and gone through training procedures?

But that is exactly what I was able to do Oct. 4 during Fire Prevention Week. The media were invited to join the City of North Battleford officials in a day of training exercises with North Battleford Fire and Emergency Services.

The goal: to learn what firefighters do on a regular basis and what procedures they regularly must follow when they go to emergency scenes.

As a reporter I regularly see what firefighters do in the city. Our office has a pager that alerts us whenever the fire department is called to a blaze or a car accident in the city.

I have seen firefighters use the Jaws of Life and various other equipment on vehicles. I've also seen them on the scene at some major fires, going into buildings and making sure fires are brought under control.

It is one thing to see firefighters in action. It is another thing to experience what they first-hand.

I dutifully showed up at the fire hall at 11:30 a.m. that Monday. Also there were representatives of the other news organizations in the Battlefords as well as civic officials, including Mayor Ian Hamilton and city councillors Trent Houk and Don Buglas.

We would all be donning the safety equipment firefighters normally wear when they go to the scene of a fire or an accident. Leading the day of demonstrations were Fire Chief Pat MacIsaac, deputy chiefs Kevin Steinborn and Robin Tomaz, and a number of firefighters.

The first step, obviously, was to get the equipment on. That proved to be a bit of an issue for me. It took a while to put the bulky fire suit on and get the fire helmet properly fitted. I don't know how firefighters are able to bulk up and respond to fires in such a speedy manner, given what they have to wear to get to the scene.

The other thing I quickly discovered was that it could get hot wearing these bulky fire suits - and it wasn't even all that warm that day. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must get for firefighters during hot summer days, let alone when they have to fight some blazing-hot fire.

Once we were all outfitted, we headed into the fire truck and rode out to the fire department's training area at the airport. At that facility are a couple of houses used to simulate house fire situations, as well as a number of old cars and trucks sitting around on the grass.

I noticed the mayor and councillors looking at the junked vehicles in that lot and were jokingly wondering if the fire department was in compliance with the City's property management bylaws. The City had been aggressively cracking down on people using their property to house junked vehicles in the past several months.

The junked vehicles are there for a reason, however. They are there to train firefighters on various aspects of car accident response. The mayor, councillors, and media people were about to get our first lesson of the day: responding to the scene of an accident.

The firefighters on the scene demonstrated how to stabilize a vehicle at the sceneby placing planks of wood underneath it to keep it steady. They showed how to safely smash out the windows.

The firefighters then demonstrated the Jaws of Life, used to open up car doors. I got a chance to hold one of them and I have to say, it was heavy. You need to be in good shape to be able to lift those on a regular basis.

We were shown how to open and close the tool's jaws. We were also able to handle the cutters used to cut vehicles open and helped remove the roof of the vehicle. I use done of the cutters to cut through some of the metal holding the car roof together.

You don't often think of the crucial role that firefighters play at the scene of accidents. Normally you think of their role in fighting fires, but their skill in attending to accident scenes and their use of the Jaws of Life is a particularly important role for them to play in helping to save lives.

The next step was to experience the firefighters' main role - that of entering a smoke-filled building to rescue people.

During this training session, the house was filled with non-toxic water-based smoke, and then the trainee firefighters went in and learned how to search a building. Usually during a fire, firefighters would not be able to see at all, so the ability to enter a burning building and navigate is especially important.

During this exercise we were outfitted with oxygen masks so we could breathe oxygen while we were inside, to replicate an actual fire situation. We probably would have been able to breathe without it during the exercise, but they wanted us to have a real life experience.

Mayor Hamilton and the councillors were the first to enter the smoke-filled building and perform a rescue. They had to go in and crawl on their hands and knees inside the building.

When they came out, they all looked done in. They called the experience exhausting and quite a workout, and needed bottles of water to drink after it was over.

If these guys were exhausted, imagine what I was in for, then, going in there on a rescue mission the other guys on my team.

I was outfitted with a bulky oxygen mask and I could breathe air in and out. I wore oxygen on my back and carried the bulky oxygen pack in with me as I entered the burning house. We were also outfitted with special "beepers" that could go off if we were ever in a stationary position. The beepers are needed just in case a firefighter happens to pass out or is trapped during a fire, alerting the other firefighters of their locatation.

We finally entered the smoldering building, following our orders to crawl in on our hands and knees. We were told to stay close to the walls and to not lose contact with each other as we went in. That meant I had to hold onto the leg of the guy leading in front of me.

Because I was the one who followed behind, I had the dubious honour of carrying the axe used to chop doors down with - dubious honor because it was hard enough work just entering the building without having to carry an axe in with me.

Talk about a job - I had to go in crawling on my hands and knees wearing two oxygen tanks, carrying an axe in one hand while attempting to maintain contact with the guy in front of me with the other hand.

I ended up breathing through my oxygen mask really heavily - not because I had trouble breathing, but because I was so out of shape for such a tough job like this one, entering a burning building.

No wonder you have such buff looking firefighters posing for these firefighter calendars - you have to be in good shape just to survive any length of time in a job like this. Fire Chief MacIsaac said that's why he became fire chief - because it meant he didn't have to do this physical stuff anymore. Needless to say, I was a wreck.

We couldn't see very much in there, either.

It was a little bit easier to see in there than it would have been if it had been an actual fire, which is why the firefighters suggested we might want to close our eyes while we did the training exercise. At one point, though, we stopped and we were shown the thermal imaging equipment we could point in a certain direction and show thermal images of what was in front of us.

We also were able to find a window that we were able to crack open - that is what firefighters would normally do in such a situation, to let the light in. Finally we were able to find a victim in one of the rooms lying on the floor.

At that point, what sounded like a ringing telephone went off. That, we were told, was an alarm that one of our guys' oxygen tanks was running out of oxygen, so we had to get out of the building right away.

We made our way to the exit and carried the "victim" out. Mission accomplished - another successful fire rescue completed.

Yikes, was I ever exhausted after that. My knees were hurting and I definitely needed at least a couple of bottles of water to rehydrate myself.

There was one other training exercise left for us to accomplish, learning how to douse a fire. We learned about the different ways to extinguish a fire and Mayor Hamilton was called on to use one of the extinguishers to snuff it out.

After that was over, it was back to the fire hall for drinks and pizza, with Domino's Pizza donating the food free of charge. Following that grueling day out at the airport grounds, I have to say I was never so happy to see pepperoni pizza in my life.

I think those of us who weren't in the fire department were all in agreement that fighting fires is hard, hard work. I know Councillor Houk was one of the people saying he had a new appreciation of what firefighters went through on the job, just by having experienced it first hand. It was an eye opening experience, to say the least.

For the councillors, it was a particularly useful exercise because they learned a lot more about what tools were needed to allow the firefighters to be able to do a good job. As a result, they're going to be in a better position to make budget decisions when it comes to making sure the fire department has what it requires to do the job they do.

The experience gave me a new and informed perspective on what firefighters actually have to do for a living. The next time I go to the scene of a blazing fire or an accident scene, I'll have a better understanding of what they are up against. Believe me, we owe the people who do firefighting for us a living a huge debt for the tough, dangerous job they have to do.

Heck, someone has to do it. I'm just glad it's not me.