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Into the Fire

A first-person account of Fire Ops 101

By Stephen Carter-Novotni · December 20th, 2011 · News
The haze of the smoke has already crept to the first floor. We’re walking bowlegged up the building’s stairs because the center of the steps is the first part to be weakened by the fire. I have a fire hose under my arm. Pulling it up the steps reminds me of dragging a long extension cord — it snags and can get caught on things, but it’s also massive.

The hose is so heavy that it nearly knocks me over when I pull it off the truck. The firefighter gear weighs more than 60 pounds: heavy boots, fire retardant pants and jacket, gloves, a helmet and face mask with tanked oxygen. 

When I reach the top floor I get on my hands and knees. I’m crawling beneath the layer of smoke that’s filled the top five feet of the room. The walls and everything inside are blackened with soot, so there’s very little to see. I’m groping through the smoke and darkness until I come to what I believe is the fire. But, it’s not the fire. I went the wrong way and have to double back.

The hose is now pressurized and heavy with water, rigid like a two-by-four; it takes a great deal of effort to turn this monster. Finally, I find the blaze and pull the lever releasing the water. It takes what seems like several minutes before it’s finally extinguished. The simulation feels fraught with danger despite the fact that I am being shadowed by professional firefighters. The work is hard even though it is easy compared to the real thing. This is just one of five scenarios, called evolutions, we are tasked with completing at Fire Ops 101, a day for local media and public officials to experience the basics of firefighting. 

“We have five evolutions set up for you,” says Special Operations District Chief Tom Lakamp. “The first evolution is the flashover simulator. You’ll go in there, you’ll learn about fire behavior, you’ll learn how a fire progresses to flashover, and you’ll quickly learn once it does progress to flashover, it is no longer survivable.”

He tells us we also are assigned to put out a fire, search for and rescue a sandbag dummy from a burning building, cut off the roof of a car using the “jaws of life” device and perform CPR on a victim (actually a special dummy) who has stopped breathing.

More than 100 firefighters volunteered on their off day to participate in the event, and all costs were incurred by the Cincinnati Firefighters Union.

It’s the morning of Oct. 21 at the Cincinnati Fire Department’s Millcreek Training Facility. I and 20 other participants — including former State Rep. Connie Pillich, John London of WLWT-TV and Cincinnati Fraternal Order of Police President Kathy Harrell — are anxious to start.

We’re also a little tense. These are real, if controlled, fires and our signatures are on documents that state we are doing this at our own risk. With five firefighters to every one participant, it’s as safe as it can be, says Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Vice President Matt Alter.

“There are a lot of questions people have regarding their fire departments,” Alter says. “It’s a good opportunity to get leaders of the community in there to see what firefighters do every day.”

Before we can rescue Big Red, the sandbag dummy, trapped in a burning building, we have to find him. I squeeze into the back seat of a ladder truck. A Cincinnati Red Cross employee jams herself into the seat across from me. Because of the bulk of our gear, we are practically bumping against one another’s helmets.

We arrive at the building and climb the stairs; this time, I’m carrying an axe. The Red Cross worker crawls in front of me, tracing the edge of the wall. I keep my left hand on her right boot so I don’t lose her. I hold the head of the axe in my right hand, sweeping the handle in wide arcs, hoping to make contact with Big Red. No such luck. We resort to using the thermal imaging camera, which lets us see through the smoke, and finally see him in a corner. 

“I found him,” I say. “I can feel him!”

It takes a lot of exertion for me to drag him to the stairs while crawling. If he was a real person, I may have dislocated his arm. Quickly sucking in the oxygen while I work, I sound like I’m about to hyperventilate. The experience evokes claustrophobia.

“If you don’t get them out, they’re dead,” says Firefighter Chris Thompson. Thompson is my shadow through all the scenarios and helps me make it through the training. “If they’ve got windows and we’ve got a ladder, we can get them out a ladder. If you don’t, you have to come down those stairs.”

The flashover simulator provides the day’s most surreal and dangerous experience. The simulator is a metal box, a little larger than a trailer that’s pulled by a truck. There are doors at the back where we enter and benches on both sides where we sit. At the end opposite the doors is a raised area, about five feet off of the floor. The fire is set on this stage.

We watch a hellish sort of theater as the flames intensify and thick smoke cascades overhead. We’re lower than the fire so we can see what happens next without injury. The fire grows until the entire ceiling becomes black and then the radiant heat — more than 1,000 degrees — causes the solids in the room to begin to release flammable gasses. While we think of the contents of our homes as chairs and televisions and carpet, Thompson explains that firefighters see these items as gasoline in solid form. Tongues of flame creep from the center of the fire, which is no longer visible because the smoke is now opaque. Then the gasses and temperature reach a critical level and the roof changes from black to a river of fire. It flows overhead and spills up the chimney at the center of the box like a waterfall in reverse. 

Fire is truly a powerful and elemental force. Although most people already know this, there’s a difference between knowing it and feeling it.

Our firefighters rescue people from ovens, simply the most terrible place you can imagine being. Fire Ops is a rare opportunity to help the public understand how fire departments function under these extreme circumstances.

The last Fire Ops was held in 2006. Alter says the response to this year’s event was so great that they are planning another for 2012. ©



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