Last Saturday I got a real treat. I’m a fire commissioner and I was invited to a “Fire Ops” course put on yearly by the Professional Fire Fighters of Idaho. Simply put it was a chance to put on the turnouts and walk into fire. This gives politicians (like myself) and community leaders (such as myself) the opportunity to feel the heat, stress and hard work of fighting fire.
Two days later my thighs are still crying.
I had a motorcycle epiphany after a couple of turns in the “Burn Room”. The Burn Room is a specially designed room that is used to train fire fighters to enter a building with active, live fire in it. You grab a hose, move down a hallway, make a turn or two and are confronted with active fire. Inside it’s completely dark, hot and intimidating. Just like the pros we were dressed in full turnouts, gloves, air bottles, mask, hood, helmet and boots. In this outfit your range of motion is still pretty good–if you’ll put the effort into the movement. It’s not light either. I have no idea the weight of all the gear but I imagine if I weighed what I should (lose 30 or more pounds) then I would have scaled about where I am now without it.
During our first run I was second in the line of “dignitaries” and my job was to pull hose for the guy with the nozzle. You open the door, smoke starts rolling out, you drop to your knees and start crawling in. We were doing a “right hand search” where you put the hose on your left and crawl along banging your right elbow against the wall. If you bang into a wall you turn left and keepyour right elbow on the wall for orientation. If you keep the same hand against the wall you may walk a lot but you’ll always be able to reverse course and escape the way you came by simply turning around and keeping your left side to the wall.
Did I mention were we pulling a charged hose? And, you have to yell, “PULL HOSE” if you suddenly don’t have slack. And crawl. In full gear.
We get to the fire and there’s a fire fighter there waiting for us. He yells, “Get DOWN!” And NozzleBoy and I drop from our knees to our hands and knees. “ALL THE WAY!” He yells, “GET ON YOUR BELLY!” (A thought here, if he had said, “GIVE ME YOUR CAR KEYS, YOUR BANK CARD AND YOUR PIN!” I would have. It’s hot like hell, the only thing you can really see is the fire in front of you and things directly in front of or next to you, AND because of the air mask it sounds like Darth Vader is breathing hard into your ears…in that situation if you tell me to start singing like Lady GaGa and I will.) Our fire fighter then describes the layering of the smoke and what’s going to happen next, I start calming down enough to listen and learn and then we hit the fire with a 1 second blast of water. Things immediately steam up, the fire effectively is smothered, other fire fighters vent the room, we watch the smoke and steam flow out, retreat panting and say, “Wow.”
Out we come, strip off the gear, enjoy the 90 degree weather and rehab (rest) for a few moments while they drag straw and pallets back, reignite the fire and tell us to get dressed again. Guy running the exercise points at me and says, “You’re on the nozzle!”
“Right hand search!” I grab the nozzle in my left hand, tuck the hose under my arm, door opens, drop to my knees, enter dragging my right elbow against the wall. Make the first turn by crawling face first into the wall. I turn go a few feet, run into the next wall, turn, and I can see the glow of the fire and spot the threshold into the next room. I get there, look the fire in the face and because I’m no dummy and remember the last trip in I immediately drop to my belly.
“NO!” comes the firm instruction from a voice I’ve not heard before, “NEVER GET ON YOUR BELLY–ALWAYS STAY ON YOUR KNEES!” Back up on my knees I go. Mrs. Crash will tell you I’m pretty good at following command imperative instructions. Yell and you have my attention and compliance. We get the same basic speech about fire and behavior but this ends with, “STAND UP. STAND UP AND FEEL IT!” I stand, think “Holy Sh*t” and drop back to my knees. Instructor Vader says, “One second burst on the fire, then stand up and feel how much hotter the steam is going to be.”
Sure. Why not? I like steamed clams and stuff like that…
Pull the nozzle open, hit the fire. Things get dark. I stand up and there’s enough fire left I can see this haze of steam which, naturally hits me and I decide, “OK. That’s enough of that!” and drop to the deck. We retreat, get out, strip down and rehab in the shade with water, sports drinks and fruit.
Here come the motorcycle tie in:
Sitting in the rehab tent I ask the second voice in the dark, “How come you told us to stay on our knees but the first guy told us to lay down on our guts?” I was, in motorcycling terms, asking “which is the right way?” Riders spend a lot of time wanting to know “the right way” to do all sorts of things from cornering to which way to turn the bars when you park.
Guy looks at me (and it’s nice to put a face to a voice) says, “Personal preference. I don’t advise it because it means you’ve given up mobility. Other guys feel you should get as low as possible because just 3 feet down there can be a 300 degree difference…or more. I just want to be able to move as quickly as possible if things go bad. It’s personal preference.” Other fire fighters all shake their heads and agree. No fighting. No arguing. Perhaps it’s professional respect or fraternity but there wasn’t one guy who started to argue. Nor did anyone come up to me later and say, “About that knees/belly thing, see that guys thinks…” All that drama that accompanies motorcycling things like “In cornering is it: Slow, Look, Roll, Press or Slow, Look, Press, Roll? And what about trail braking? Can’t you brake after Press?”
Gone. No argument. Just professionals agreeing that’s there’s more than one way to skin a cat. (Sorry PETA) .
The rule is: stay as low as you can. For some that’s on your knees. Others? It’s your belly. Rules without a ruler; no single perfect answer. Nobody walks into fire but after that? You’re the pro. Make up your own mind. Situations are never the same and different people deal with them differently. No name calling or rabbit hole “What ifs?” Simply, clean respect–professional respect.
Me? I’m a trail braking kind of guy. I don’t mind working the brakes in a turn but I teach, understand and respect that braking before a turn is valid, safe and reasonable. It doesn’t make my manhood any smaller if you do it differently; do what you gotta do. If you’re going to walk into fire without an air bottle and mask then I’ll stop you, that’s just suicide. But I don’t care if you’re on your belly or on your knees as long as you know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Rules without a Ruler. Professional respect. Good stuff.