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Appreciation gained for firefighting skills

October 10, 2009|By MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN -- Julianna Albowicz crawled across the floor of a small building -- some spots so narrow one might begin to feel claustrophobic.

Moving on her hands and knees, it was difficult to get her bearings, difficult to see what was just inches in front of her.

But time was crucial.

The house was on fire, rooms were filling with smoke and people were trapped.

Albowicz, outreach coordinator for U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., doesn't moonlight as a firefighter.

But this weekend, she had an opportunity to experience the risks and challenges firefighters face on a daily basis.

Albowicz was among a number of dignitaries, elected officials and media representatives who participated in Fire Operations 101, sponsored by the Hagerstown Fire Department and Hagerstown Professional Firefighters Local 1605.

The event, which began Friday night and continued through Saturday afternoon, was held at the local fire department's training academy on Bowman Avenue.

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According to Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker, Fire Ops 101 is an international program designed to give elected officials and community leaders an opportunity to walk in the boots of a firefighter.

It also provides participants with a better understanding of staffing, training and equipment needed to do the job, he said.

This is the second time the program has been offered. The first class was held several years ago, Hawbaker said.

About 10 people participated in this year's Fire Ops 101.

Friday night's session included speakers and a chance to experience search and rescue by crawling through a maze located in a training facility building.

While there was no smoke or fire inside the structure, participants were told to use their imagination, especially when crawling in darkness.

You quickly got an idea of how dangerous the situation would be, Albowicz said.

On Saturday, participants suited up, were divided into teams and made their way through a number of 30-minute stations, including vehicle extrication and CPR. They also had an opportunity to drive a fire engine and tiller a ladder truck on a course; participate in a firefighter mayday where they would rescue a downed firefighter; and help put out a live fire.

Two professional firefighters were with each team at all times, Hawbaker said.

"This has been quite an experience," Albowicz said. "I've always known this wasn't an easy job. But now, I have even more admiration for what firefighters do."

She also has an appreciation for the protective clothing they wear and the equipment they carry.

"This gear is really heavy," she said. "Sometimes, it's difficult to move."

Albowicz said she will take the information she learned from the weekend program and share it with Mikulski.

"You can read about what firefighters do, but you don't fully understand the responsibilities and challenges until you actually have the hands-on experience," she said.

Washington County Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said Fire Ops 101 was "definitely an education."

Participating in the car extrication, for instance, was a lot more difficult than he imagined, he said.

The Jaws of Life, a piece of rescue equipment used to spread apart thick steel in auto and industrial accidents, was so heavy, he said, "I can't imagine one man or woman doing this by themselves, let alone working on more than one vehicle."

What was most surprising, he said, was the knowledge base firefighters must have to do their job.

"It was an education for me to realize how educated you have to be to be a firefighter," Aleshire said. "You don't just jump off a truck and start using a hose."

When the program got under way, many of the participants were a little apprehensive, said Glenn Fuscsick, a firefighter with the City of Hagerstown.

"But they've done a fantastic job," he said. "It was a real learning experience."

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