They say the day you know you are ready to become a father is a few months after your first child is born. No amount of preparation, products, training or practice can prepare you for the moment when you go from man to father. It's the same rule of thumb when becoming a firefighter.
Months of training, drills, practice, choosing the perfect flashlight, boots, etc. doesn’t prepare a fire department member for their first fire nearly as much as you may think.
Drills allow for pre-planning and preparation. Training allows rescue techniques to become second nature. But when awoken from a dead sleep to a report of fire in a dwelling, you’re lucky if you’re awake by the time you arrive on the scene.
On my first fire, dispatch transmitted possible persons trapped in a single-family dwelling. When the engine made the turn, I could see the glow of fire from the end of the block. And as we pulled in front of the house, neighbors were screaming about the old woman who lived inside.
Training taught us that the best way to help anyone inside is to put the fire out. The engine driver told us he'd charge the hose line when we reached the seat of the fire. I thought I was ready to be a firefighter right up until that point.
I then found myself standing in the gravel driveway, with no idea about the layout of the home: where the bedrooms were, or even what I’d do when I found the fire. Of course I knew to “put the wet stuff on the red stuff” but the smoke, pushing out the open front door, was thick black and quickly rising into the sky to mix with the smoke coming from the second floor windows.
I was scared, scared out of my mind. Yet, I found myself walking forward and grabbing for my mask. Kneeling a few feet from the door I pulled my helmet off, pulled my mask and hood on and strapped back tight as I felt the first rush of air from the heavy tank on my back. I was as ready as I was ever going to be, and I was not ready. My breathing was fast and shallow as I crawled into the smoke.
The heat. The heat was unreal and was only getting hotter the farther I crawled. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see my gloves even when touching my mask. Our small department only runs 2 firefighters per engine and I was the volunteer who squeezed into the middle seat of the 500 gallon engine. The career firefighter was behind me, pushing me down the hallway. That’s when I felt the hole in the floor. Confusion flooded into my brain. We never trained for how to get down a hallway when there isn’t a floor.
I was second guessing my choice of career when suddenly I could see. The hole in the floor was illuminated by my flashlight and I could see it wasn’t a hole at all, but simply a bare section of floor surrounded by mounds of trash. At the end of the hall was a glow of orange and the firefighter behind me called for the hose to be charged with water.
As we crawled what seemed like miles, the soft cotton hose over my right shoulder snapped to life and I “put the wet on the red.” The heat became more intense as the water flash boiled on contact with the fire, causing the smoke layer in the kitchen, where we were, to drop suddenly and once again we were in darkness. All I could do was play whack a mole with the orange glow until, finally, there were other people dressed like me in the area doing the same.
The other engine had finally arrived. A bell began to ring on my waistband indicating I was out of breathing air and we made our way back outside.
The scene had changed considerably. When I went in we were alone, now there were 2 engines, an ambulance, a ladder truck and a Battalion Captain. As my hood came off and my mask came down I realized why the smoke suddenly changed earlier. The firefighters on the roof had cut a hole to allow the smoke another escape route.
I collapsed in a dirty, steaming lump on the tailboard of the engine out front and the career firefighter sat beside me looking just as exhausted. He patted me on the back of the head and laughed.
“Let’s get another bottle and get back in there,” he told me. I didn’t think I was ready.
But I soon found myself back inside. What felt like miles of crawling was, in fact, only about 30 feet. The other firefighters had completed their search and no occupant had been found.
I felt ready until the next fire, when I felt exactly the same. On every dispatch I can feel the doubt of that 18-year-old kid in the gravel driveway, not entirely ready for the challenge ahead. If that feeling ever goes away I’ll be very, very worried.