As we pushed the hose and nozzle closer to the fire using muscles I had no idea existed, it became clear Capt. Steve Gallagher and the other instructors weren’t joking when they told me to tuck all of my hair into my turnout hood so it wouldn’t catch fire.
“We don’t want you writing about how we ruined your hair,” they said.
The Prince George’s County Professional Firefighters and Paramedics Association IAFF Local 1619, the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department and the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute hosted the second annual Fire Ops 101 training Friday. The departments invited state and county officials and media personnel to learn how to become a firefighter for the day at the MFRI station in College Park.
Charlie DeBoyace, a Diamondback photographer, and I were among the first to arrive. We were told to grab all the bottles of water and Gatorade we wanted.
“Make sure you keep drinking,” an official said. “And check your urine with the color chart in the bathroom. You’ll get dehydrated very quickly.”
We listened to opening remarks from IAFF President Andrew Pantelis, county Fire/EMS Chief Marc Bashoor and MFRI Director Steve Edwards before being escorted into a storage room to be fit into full turnout gear.
Once dressed in official boots, pants, coat, hood, gloves and helmet, we were taken to the flammable liquids station, where I thought I would spend my last moments with intact eyebrows.
Capt. Dana Brooks showed us how to approach a car fire with a hose and successfully handle the emergency situation. We quickly learned the biggest rule: “Never turn your back on a fire, because you never know what will happen,” and of course, someone almost instantaneously did.
In the 80-degree weather, dressed head-to-toe in heavy protective material, just feet away from a 600-degree fire, most of us were already exhausted. Luckily, we had listened to officials’ advice to hide water bottles in the large pockets of our pants.
As we rehydrated and prepared to move on to our next station, Brooks and Gallagher gave us tips on how to stay cool. Getting dressed at 7 a.m. on Friday morning, I thought I was so smart for deciding to wear Under Armour — something that would keep my body temperature down. But I was quickly singled out.
“The worst thing a firefighter can wear is Under Armour,” Brooks and Gallagher said. “We wear cotton T-shirts because if you’re burned wearing something like Under Armour, you’ll be in the hospital with doctors picking it out of your skin.”
Our next station was the search maze — a pitch-black tunnel we had to navigate in full gear using just the sense of touch. Capt. Timothy Yates taught us to feel everywhere before moving, in case there was a hole in the ground caused by a hypothetical fire or a window with no ground on the other side.
In the maze, we had to find our way up a ladder, around corners, through a window and down a staircase with no light. Although fun, it was much harder than anticipated.
Again, we rehydrated before our next station: the fire observation. For this segment, we were fitted with self-contained breathing apparatuses (what’s another 30 or 40 pounds in the 80-degree weather, right?)
We were led into a burn building that MFRI uses for training. Doors were locked, and there were no windows. Again, it was dark. The only noises were the Darth Vader-esque sounds of our air masks. Trained firefighters then lit bales of hay on fire, causing a rapid temperature increase and a thick cloud of smoke.
The burn was so hot and close, a member of our group panicked and had to be escorted out early. Exhaustion and fear got the best of almost half the participants by the end of the day.
Firefighters put out the small inferno. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t see my hand a foot in front of my face. Finally the door was opened and we filed out of the building, holding onto the person’s shoulder in front of us and the wall on our side to guide our way out.
We were served fried chicken, pasta salad and French fries for lunch before heading to our final station. I couldn’t have been any more excited to get indoors. We were permitted to take our coats, helmets, hoods and gloves off as we filed into a classroom to learn hands-only CPR.
The instructors taught us the life-saving gesture to the tune of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” — we were told to push hard and fast on a dummy’s chest, keeping the beat to the popular disco song.
The six-hour training program drained all of my energy. Other participants joked they wouldn’t need to go to the gym for weeks. DeBoyace and I dreamed about cold showers and long naps for the entirety of our five-minute drive home.
Fire Ops 101 was an eye-opening experience that gave us a small look into what firefighters go through every day. Let’s just say I’m happy to be studying journalism, and to still have my eyebrows.
– Erin Egan is a senior staff writer for The Diamondback