Being a firefighter is hard work. There’s no doubt about that. But just how hard it is was what I discovered Aug. 31 when I took part in a mock training session for reporters at the Robert L. Benner Fire Training Facility on Lehigh Street.
When I agreed to do the mock training, I didn’t know how involved it would be, but Whitehall Township Fire Chief David Nelson pulled out all the stops. I found myself racing to put heavy gear on in the required minute, struggling to get an air tank on inside a crowded fire engine and shooting a stream of high-pressure water out of a fire hose at a flaming palette inside a smoky fire-training building.
It was three hours I will never forget.
When I arrived at the training facility, Nelson took me and the other reporters into the training room where he had laid out the required gear, which filled a table.
“We’re going to send you through a little scenario in our burn house, so you can feel the heat,” he promised.
One by one, he showed us parts of the gear and talked about each.
First, we got heavy leather boots that had both steel tips and steel shanks in the sole to protect against stepping on nails, Nelson said.
Next came the fire-resistant overalls, which we pulled up over our pants. A cotton hood went on under a fire coat to protect our neck and hair, and the heavy fire coat both snapped and had toggles. On top went the fire helmet that has flaps to protect both your ears and the back of your neck.
The final piece was a pair of thick leather gloves.
Once it was all on, I felt like I could barely move. Since the gear is designed to protect your body from heat and fire, it is bulky and awkward, making you less flexible. It also is heavy.
Nelson told us full gear weighs 80 pounds.
“You definitely lose dexterity as you put gear on,” he said.
After we had gotten on all the gear, we were surprised when Nelson told us to take it all off. He told us we would put it on again, and he would time us since firefighter trainees are required to be able to put on their gear in one minute. He showed us some tricks firefighters use to speed things up, like setting boots up with the overalls rolled down over them so you can quickly step right into them and pull them up.
Then Nelson held his stopwatch — and said, “Go!”
The boots and overalls trick worked well, and I was able to get the hood, jacket and helmet on quickly, but I fumbled with the heavy gloves, dropping one, and took too much time retrieving it that my time exceeded the minute.
Assistant Fire Chief Mark Bilder, who was being timed along with us, got his gear on in a cool 44 seconds.
Next, Nelson and Bilder brought out oxygen masks and tanks.
“Are we really going to have to wear that?” I asked nervously.
“If you want to stay alive,” Nelson responded.
Bilder showed me how to put on the mask so it covered my whole face. He said it needs to be tight enough that it suctions to your skin, so no smoke can get inside. The tanks hold 45 minutes of air, but Nelson said it can be used up much faster when firefighters are exerting themselves and breathing harder. He said he plans for only 21 minutes per tank.
We practiced getting the tank on our backs by flipping it over our heads — not an easy feat. Then we hooked the regulator to the mask and started breathing oxygen with a whooshing sound that Nelson quipped sounds like Darth Vader.
He said actual firefighter training takes 2,100 hours, and trainees must take tests and go through skills reviews.
Once we had learned about the gear, Nelson took us outside to learn how to forcibly enter a locked door, on a training door, using an ax and Halligan bar. It took some time and quite a bit of effort until we heard the cracking of wood; that told us the door was finally giving way.
Then we practiced pulling the hose out of the firetruck and spraying it. Nelson said the usual protocol is the person who has the nozzle kneels while advancing — to stay low where the air is cooler — so we practiced moving the hose forward on our knees.
Finally, we were ready for the main event: fighting a real fire. But Nelson wanted us to get the whole experience. We climbed into the firetruck, which drove away and then returned, sirens blaring. With five people in the back seat of the truck, it was quite crowded, and elbows and oxygen tanks were bumping as we got the tanks on our backs and the masks on our faces. Finally, we jumped out of the truck, pulled out the hose and prepared to fight a fire.
I didn’t get to be on the nozzle for the first pass. I was the third person back, feeding the hose to the others on the nozzle. Inside the burn house, smoke swirled around my head as we worked our way down a dark hall, until we saw the glow of flames in a room on the left. Inside, flames from the burning palette licked the ceiling. We were told to aim the hose at the ceiling and let the water “rain down” on the fire. It worked pretty well, quickly reducing the flames to embers.
For the next pass, I was on the nozzle and had to advance on my knees into the building. This time, there were some victims (training dummies) the actual firefighters rescued, while we reporters waited to attack the flames. Then we got the go-ahead, and this time, I was in charge of a nozzle that shoots water at 150 psi. Controlling it really took effort, but I was able to aim for the ceiling and put the fire out.
When we came out, I was feeling hot and a little lightheaded, so Nelson gave me a bottle of water, which I greedily gulped down. Nelson said hydration is very important for firefighters, whose core temperature can rise very quickly inside all the heavy gear.
I was just glad we were doing this on a day when the temperature was in the 70s and not earlier in the week when it had been in the 90s. It was no surprise firefighters must take frequent breaks when working to avoid overheating.
When I finally took off all the gear, my T-shirt and pants were soaked with sweat, and I downed a second bottle of water. I was more than ready to go home and leave the firefighting to the actual township firefighters — all of whom are volunteers.
Nelson said the department fights between 30 and 40 fires a year and responds to hundreds more calls for other problems. They are always looking for more volunteers.
After going through the mock training, I can say I have a renewed respect for how hard these firefighters work to keep the township safe.