The invitation to be a firefighter for the day seemed harmless enough when it arrived, so without thinking about it too much, I signed away all my rights, provided my medical history and sent in my paperwork.
Sponsored by the Wichita Fire Department and the International Association of Firefighters Local 135, I had agreed to participate Wichita’s first Fire Ops 101 — an opportunity for elected officials, staffers and the media to participate in time critical, technical and physically-demanding emergencies that firefighters respond to daily.
First, we learned how to gear up. It was fairly cool out even on this day in May but the breeze did not help me from heating up quickly after wearing 50-plus pounds of firefighting gear. Part of this equipment is a self-controlled breathing apparatus (SCBA) and this device features an automatic piercing beep that goes off every time it fails to sense movement for 10 second or more by the person wearing it.
I was assigned to Team Red, which was led by our very knowledgeable and patient team captain, Tim Riggs from the WFD Station 9. Together with Council Member Becky Tuttle, Andover Councilman Brian Schwan and Public Works & Utilities Fleet Supervisor Troy Tillotson, we actively participated in four scenarios, or evolutions as they called them. Our first scenario was to run into a dark building with a fire hose and use the hose to put out the fire. Since the flames were raging over my head, most of this work was done one my knees as I struggled to keep control of the charged hose.
Our second evolution allowed Team Red the opportunity to perform CPR on a mannequin. The team took turns performing chest compressions, using an airbag to manually push air into the mannequin, holding the mask firmly on the face, keeping necessary records and running intravenous lines to push fluids.
After a quick break for some lunch, Team Red met up with the Search and Rescue Unit for another scenario. This time, we were asked to enter a smoke-filled house to search for inhabitants. Seeing through the thick, pervasive smoke was impossible, so we were forced to rely on our other senses as we crawled through the “house” to search for potential victims. Thankfully, no real victims were relying on us as the team did not do well at this exercise. The darkness, smoke and cramped felt suffocating at points.
Finally, we were shown how teamwork is used to extricate victims from cars. From breaking windows to using the Jaws of Life, it takes brawn, patience and a careful strategy of teamwork to save trapped victims.
Here are some of my personal takeaways from the day:
- Firefighters have about 45 seconds after a call comes in to get dressed and get out the door – and that’s no small feat. Between the buckles, the Velcro and the straps, it would have taken me 45 minutes to get dressed had I not had the help of my team captain.
- Firefighters train constantly regardless of their age, rank or even their schedule. And on their days off, they spend time in the community educating because they know that education can save a life. During Fire Ops 101, most, if not all, of the men and women who helped us suit-up, staged our evolutions, helped us survive each exercise and even provided hydration and medical monitoring were all volunteering their assistance on their day off.
- Make sure you have clear and wide passageways in your house. When your house is filled with smoke and firefighters can no longer see, they need to be able to have easy access to all rooms — and especially the corners of rooms — to search for your loved ones.
- If your house should catch fire, teach your children not to hide and to close their bedroom doors. A closed door keeps flames at bay for an extra 5-7 minutes and that can make all the difference to search and rescue teams.
- The equipment a firefighter must wear is incredibly heavy. Imagine running up steps with lead weights on your ankles and a four-year-old on your back. Oh, and by the way, you’re wearing a 10-pound hat and might have a 50-pound tool in your hands. The Wichita-area YMCAs offer firefighters the opportunity to work out in their gyms. So if you see any of them doing bench presses or leg squats, please understand they are not slacking off during work hours. Fighting fires is extremely physical and exhausting and being in shape is crucial.
We are taught, even as young children, to thank our military and our first responders for the work they do, so after each evolution, I was careful to thank the men and women who were helping us and to thank them for all they do each and every day. What happened next totally surprised me. They were thanking me and expressing their gratitude for taking the time to participate in the first Fire Ops 101 and for pushing myself beyond my comfort zone.
So the next time you see a fire fighter, thank them. If you’re lucky, you’ll never need them but know that if you do, they are training every day for the day you will need them the most.