Black smoke billowing from the doorway gave way to orange inferno and blasting heat. I was wide-eyed behind my oxygen mask, facing the flames that bloomed above me while I wrestled to keep control of the charged hose in my arms.
The live burning building was just one of six emergency situation simulations I completed at Fire Ops 101 to get a feel for the demanding, dangerous and dedicated life of a firefighter.
My lineup included extinguishing liquefied petroleum gas car and dumpster fires, roof ventilation with a chainsaw and ladder ascending, the burn building, vehicle extrication, search and rescue, and Mega Code.
Fire Ops 101 was held at the Volpentest Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) Federal Training Center March 21 and 22 in Richland, Wash.
Put on by the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters and IAFF 7th District, Fire Ops 101 allows elected officials, members of the media, and other community influencers to participate in time critical, highly technical, and labor intensive emergencies firefighters often respond to.
Mostly sunny weather conditions provided temperatures in the mid-60s, but I still felt the sweat pooling in my face mask after battling blazes and donning 50-plus pounds of firefighting gear for most of the day.
As all attendees were split into five groups, I conquered the day alongside city of Puyallup council member Julie Door, city of Pasco council member David Milne, and Walla Walla County Commissioner Todd Kimball, and our knowledgeable firefighter companions — otherwise known as our “Shadows.”
Our team was led by Renton Regional Fire Authority Battalion Chief Craig Soucy, who graciously snapped pictures and videos of this unforgettable event throughout the day.
“I want you to close your eyes,” said a Marysville Fire District firefighter before we geared up to enter the burn building. “We’re in the middle of the desert. This is a controlled setting … This is not where we fight fires.”
The experiences at Fire Ops closely imitate reality, and although controlled, these training scenarios were no less daunting than if they were an actual unpredictable crisis.
More than 100 firefighters from departments around the state volunteered to aid us through each scenario with demonstrations and explanations.
Thankfully, no victims were relying directly on our abilities, but we were certainly relying on the professional firefighters at Fire Ops; our lives depended on them, should things take a turn for the worst.
The gravity of that realization set in as my shadow, South King Fire and Rescue firefighter and IAFF Local 2024 Political Action Coordinator Jacob Czekanski, pulled me safely into a corner of the blazing room as we worked to extinguish the flames. Fires spread in the path of least resistance and had I continued to spray the flames from my position in front of the stairwell, I was directly in that path of potential danger.
As we crawled through a blacked out, smokey search and rescue maze in full bunker gear with air packs on our backs, I began to feel disoriented.
Staring into the unforgiving darkness while trying to trace the wall and keep track of your surroundings feels suffocating at points.
Luckily, I had Czekanski at my heels offering encouragement to press on through the tunnels and around corners until we were met once again with daylight at the maze exit.
Everything we did at Fire Ops was a matter of time, but also a matter of teamwork.
Transporting a mannequin patient onto a backboard, down two flights of stairs, then carefully into an ambulance, all while maintaining intubation, required careful all-hands-on-deck coordination.
That night, I attempted to sleep after what would’ve been a mere eight-hour shift compared to a standard 24-hour shift.
In the silence, my ears were ringing with the incessant and unfamiliar sounds of the day.
The piercing beeps of a self-controlled breathing apparatus (SCBA), an automatic feature that alerts lack of movement by an individual wearing the air pack.
The jarring shatter of glass and searing slice of metal as we ripped doors off of a vehicle to extricate trapped victims.
The gasps of breath amplified through my face mask microphone as I climbed the engine ladder to a rooftop seven stories above the pavement.
But the sound that stood out the most?
The endless stream of thank you’s and words of appreciation spoken by each firefighter I encountered. These first responders, who put their lives on the line to save ours, expressed such gratitude to each attendee for taking the time to participate in Fire Ops 101.
Firefighters execute these varied tasks daily with even more physically and psychologically strenuous factors.
From carrying tools, or victims, weighing more than a hundred pounds to performing CPR while panicked bystanders scream, “Why aren’t you saving them? You have to save them!”
Just last week in Federal Way and Des Moines, SKFR departments tended to 18 fire calls, 352 emergency medical service calls, and 63 other miscellaneous calls of those needing help.
I found out that to be a firefighter is much more than fighting fires.
Thermal imaging cameras, fully staffing departments, protective turnout gear, even upgraded fire engines do cost thousands of taxpayer dollars; Fire departments often have moral support and community admiration, they also need your monetary support.
After being at the core of six different worst-case scenarios, I now understand there is no monetary value that can be placed on their ability to save your loved ones or you.