In harm's way

Writer, city officials get glimpse into what firefighters go through

Writer, city officials get glimpse into what firefighters go through

April 09, 2006|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM


When a firefighter set a large pile of straw on fire and I saw the flames rise over my head and sparks begin to spread, my first instincts were to get out of the room, leave the building and run.

But I stayed.

I kneeled on the concrete floor, then stood, raising my arms to feel the 500-degree heat near the ceiling. It was only about 120 degrees closer to the ground, I was told.

Wearing heavy, bulky turnout gear, a face mask and a 35-pound air pack, I was protected, but very scared about what they were going to throw at us next.


I've been writing about firefighters and other emergency personnel for about two years. In that time, I've gone to house fires, barn fires, forest fires and car crashes. I've always seen firefighters at these incidents pulling hoses, going in and out of burning buildings and using tools to rescue people from vehicles.

But until going through fire operations training Friday and Saturday, with the help of about 16 Hagerstown Fire Department firefighters, I don't think I really understood what they do or how difficult their job is.

On Friday, the group, myself and six others, including city officials, staff and local media, were given the gear we would be using and were taught some basic firefighting facts.

We also got our first taste of actually moving in the equipment.

The group went through a maze, used as a confidence builder to get trainees acclimated to the feel of breathing through the face mask, Hagerstown Fire Department Chief Gary Hawbaker said.

Hagerstown City Councilman Lewis C. Metzner was the first through the maze, a winding path with small obstacles inside a building. We had the option of going through with the lights on or off.

Metzner chose to go through with the lights off.

When he came back out, tired and hot, firefighters said he had gone through very fast. Metzner later said he went through so fast because once he got into the maze, he realized he wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

I'm freaking out

I was paired with Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer. We decided to go through the maze, also with the lights out. As soon as we got down on all fours and began to crawl through the tiny space, with no light at all, I realized I wanted to leave.

Cromer said she remembered me saying, "I'm freaking out."

And I was.

This was the tightest, darkest place I'd ever been. I had no idea what was next, where I was or what I was touching. I was very timid, and felt all around me before moving forward.

Even so, I bumped into things and got stuck a few times.

At one point, there was an obstacle that simulated the feeling of the floor caving in.

Firefighters said these conditions are similar to conditions they face in house and building fires every day.

On Saturday, we started the day by putting on our protective gear and going into a training building, where there was a live fire.

First, we stood and watched the way the fire moves - first up and then out. As it spread across the ceiling, ash and sparks began to fall, and the extreme heat eventually forced us to kneel.

Next, in two groups, we went into the building and actually extinguished a fire. We crawled in the building with four of us holding a hose. I was in a group with Cromer, city Attorney Mark K. Boyer and city Administrator Bruce Zimmerman.

This was terrifying. As we crawled further inside the building, my first instinct was to get out.

I couldn't see, and I had no idea what was around the corner. We each took turns extinguishing a fire, with other group members steadying the hose.

When it was my turn, I had to switch places with someone and make my way toward the front. Once I reached the nozzle, I had to move forward, but had no idea where I was going.

I could not believe how little I could hear or see, and I was afraid to move anywhere. One of the firefighters was yelling for me to move toward him, and I began to tug on the hose once I realized where I should go.

The hose wasn't moving with me, and I realized how important, but at the same time impossible, good communication is when you are inside a burning building. I couldn't hear anything, and my group couldn't hear me.

So, when I told them we needed to move forward, we didn't.

After a few seconds, we all began moving together into another room with another fire. I crawled close to the flames, and a firefighter told me to point the hose at the ceiling.

At this point, I realized how difficult it is to move a hose that is filled with water.

The spray that comes out is powerful, and I tried to keep the hose steady. The fire was extinguished in just a few seconds, and I moved back to hold the line.

After Zimmerman had extinguished a fire, we were told to move back toward the exit and leave the building. We all held onto the hose and followed it toward the door we entered.

Heavy Metal

The next exercise was cutting a vehicle open using spreaders and cutters. This was the activity I was the least worried about, yet the one I had the most problems with.

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