Day one was great, orientation and firefighter safety. Mostly old stuff I knew already but it was great to hear it again and pick up some new information. The best part of the first day was getting to know some of the people I would be spending the next 10 or so weeks with. The class is a great mixture from 18 year olds who are ready to take on the world, and who reminded me of myself so many years ago, to an early 40 something former soldier who has taken on many challenges in life and has now settled on the fire service to continue his public service. Then there was me, 57 years old making another go around at a professional life dancing again with that old mistress, firefighting.
Day two began with more of the same, orientation and safety information. We had the same instructor as day one, Kevin Waldrup, who was well experienced and old salt of a firefighter/engineer with the City of Hendersonville Fire Department. He took us on a tour of the grounds. As we walked through the smaller burn building I saw something that caught my attention, about a 30” steel pipe that disappeared into the lower level wall at ground height. Just after lunch we put on all the gear, turnout pants, coat, hood, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mask and pack, helmet, gloves. It was 91 degrees, we were in an all masonry building with all the windows blacked out. There was a hose maze laid out through multiple floors of the building and we were put on the hose and had to find our way out, one at a time. This is a piece of cake, right? Not so much. 35 years earlier I was 22 and full of piss and vinegar. I am now 57 years old, had knee surgery just 5 weeks earlier and skin cancer surgery on my face with 20 stitches just five days earlier. It was hot, I was hot, but not to the point of dropping out on the ground. I let my mind play games with me. I had probie-itis. I almost gave up saying to myself that I was too old to do this crap but I persevered. I made it through the maze and reached the outside. I peel off my gear as fast as I could. My own body heat and the restrictive and heavy gear made me as uncomfortable as I had ever been, both physically and mentally.
Day three was just as tough, physically. We had a different instructor, another well experienced and personable firefighter/engineer with the Mountain Home Fire Department, David Jones. This time the subject was personal protective equipment and we would be spending the next three days working with it. David gave us a more in-depth tour of the facility and he told us that the 30” pipe was for confined space training and we would be using it this week. He also pointed out the “entanglement Box”. It is a training aid that resembles a torture device made of plywood with heavy wires, strung throughout the inside and tied to the outside of the 6’ long and about 3’ wide and high box. The idea of the box is to crawl through, getting hung up on all the wires, and free yourself, in full bunker gear and breathing from your SCBA, in the darkness of a closed room in the tower, with no tools. This old dog is not so nuts about this new trick. Over the years I have lost any fondness that I may have had for small, tight, dark and unknown places that restrict my movement. My mind almost immediately started thinking about how difficult it would be for me to get through it. An irrational fear started to develop. Irrational, and I knew it, but very real none the less.
It was over 90 degrees again. The class was all bunkered out and working as hard as we could to push our limits. Again I was unbearably hot but no mind games this time. We were working outdoors moving equipment, pallets, hose, tearing up an old roof used for ventilation training. I focused on the tasks at hand and pushed until I hit the physical wall. Not dropping to the ground but letting the instructor know that I needed a break and some water, and I wasn’t the first one, nor was I the last. Everyone worked as hard as they could and needed a break from the heat.
I told myself that I am going to persevere, again, 35 years later. I am the old dog in the class and I am going to show that old dogs still have some fight left in them. I am going to complete and pass this academy. I am going to become a certified firefighter and serve my community again. But confined spaces is probably my greatest fear, and I must find a way to push through it.
Day four started with a run. Official physical fitness training had not started yet but many in the class were showing up early to start unofficially. It was a do what you felt like doing. I ran 8 tenths of a mile and stopped there knowing it was going to be another hot and physical day. Some of the young bucks in class ran a mile in full turn out gear with SCBA, mask included, but not breathing off the bottle.
This turned out to be a very physical day. We got bunkered out and began doing SCBA consumption testing. It went like this:
Start by flipping a tractor tire end over end for about 50 feet, turn around and do the same back to the starting point.
Run to a large truck tire and hit it 15 times with a sledge hammer.
Proceed to the door of the smoke tower, enter and pickup a skid pack consisting of 50’ of 3” hose, shoulder it and hump it up to the third floor.
I stopped about half way up; I was exhausted. I wanted to quit right there and admit defeat…that I was too old and out of shape. My heart was pounding in my chest, my pulse was racing, I was sucking air as fast as the regulator could supply it, and sweat was rolling into my eyes inside the mask. Then I said to myself, “Hell no, I am not gonna quit now. I am half way up the stairs. I can do this, turn around and come back down! I got this!” I pushed through the rest of the steps up and down. Dropped the hose like a sack of old rotten potatoes and exited the tower. All the time one of my class mates was right next to me giving me encouragement to finish and continue to fight through the physical pain. He made a difference to me. The words of this young man, who I only met three days earlier, helped me push through and not quit.
But this hell wasn’t over yet. As I exited the tower I was guided over to a dummy with a drag strap and pulled it about another 50 feet. Completing the drag and dropping the strap, my classmate guided me to the 40’ black culvert pipe I had to crawl through. I paused to get my breath, leaning on the end of the pipe for about 15 seconds when the low pressure alarm on my SCBA started to go off. This signaled the end of the work portion of my consumption test, I was at just a little over nine minutes.
I was brought to the shade and a chair where I could sit. I had to breathe down the rest of the tank. This was no problem. I was allowed to take off my gloves while I sat there. Such a simple little task like taking off my gloves felt like someone had turned on the air conditioning. I closed my eyes, controlled my breathing and went to my happy place. The guys in the class were in various stages of their consumption testing. Every time one of them would ask how I was doing I gave them 2 thumbs up! Eventually the low pressure alarm shut off and short time later I could feel the mask starting to suck to my face. Every firefighter who has ever worn an SCBA knows what I am talking about. Take a long slow breath and it is fine. Try to suck air like you are running a marathon and you have a better chance of suck starting a Harley than getting a lung full of air. I got four or five nice slow long breaths. Twenty one minutes and eight seconds when I disconnected my mask and called time. Another small accomplishment!
At day’s end a few of us walked over to the small burn building where the pipe was located. Our instructor, David Jones, went with us to help settle our concerns. A couple of guys went into the pipe, one at a time, with just bunker gear and no SCBA, crawled to the end, turned around and came back. “Tight”, they claimed but no problem. I had to check it out myself. I crawled in taking just a flashlight. I was just wearing shorts and T shirt, no bunker gear. I got to the end, which is a small rectangular box, stood up in a similar sized pipe which led up about 8 feet up to a manhole cover. I turned around got back down and crawled out. I did it, I met the enemy and the enemy was my own mind. I told myself I can do this!
Day five arrived. The day I was dreading. I would have to crawl through the pipe in full bunker gear, with SCBA breathing tank air. I woke up about 3:30 AM like I had the past few days, pulse pounding, in slight sweat and suffering from anxiety of having to crawl through that damned pipe. Over the next couple of hours I would debate with myself the value of going through the academy all over again. I could be a volunteer firefighter and not have to go through the school. Lots of guys did that. You don’t have to be certified to be a volunteer firefighter. What if I got into that stupid pipe and panicked? How would they get me out? What if I had a heart attack in there from the fear I had of this tight space. I was not ready to die and my fears told me I would not come out of that stupid pipe alive. This was a totally irrational fear and I knew it but I had the fear none the less.
I met with David first thing in the morning when he was alone. I explained to him about my fears of confined spaces and that I did not want to express my fears in front of the rest of the class. That if I, some old crusty firefighter and cop, was afraid of doing anything, especially something that others may have some apprehensions about already, that it would just cause more anxiety among others. David reassured me that he would not allow anything to go wrong and that there was a whole class full of guys that would get me out of there if anything went wrong, which it wouldn’t. David also said that I could remove my SCBA pack, leaving it hooked up to my mask and push the pack ahead of me. This would allow me more space and I would feel less confined. I have to admit that David’s reassurance helped.
I watched several others go through the pipe, turn around and come back out. I was telling each one of them that they could do it, they had it whipped and generally encouraged them. After the pipe, each of one of us then had to crawl into a small maybe 24” tall space behind a closed door and crawl out a similar door on the outside of the building. When my turn came I was fully geared out. I went to the room with the pipe and pulled my pack off leaving my face piece on and hooked up. I got down on my knees pushed the pack into the pipe ahead of me and followed right behind it. Several of my class mates were behind me in the room telling me I could do this and gave me encouragement. I controlled my breathing and pushed forward into the pipe. I got to the box at the end and looked up to see more of my classmates at the now open manhole cover asking me if I was OK. I gave them the thumbs up! I knew at that point that if they could have been right next to me in that pipe and in that box they would have been. I dropped back down, pushed the pack back into the pipe and made my way out.
I exited the pipe and walked over to the small door and into the small space and crawled my way to the outside door pushing the SCBA ahead of me all the way. It was a piece of cake! I did it! Several guys came around asking how I was doing and gave me high fives. In these short five days we were becoming a team. A brotherhood was forming and everyone was a part of it.
©Alden L. Doane 2015