To say it was hot would be an understatement. In fact, if Paris Hilton had been sitting next to me, she would have melted into a puddle of plastic and silicon long before uttering the words.
We were experiencing firsthand what’s known as a flashover — an event in firespeak where the temperature in a room gets so high (900°F-1,200°F), that everything ignites at once. Few firefighters ever live to tell about it. And we were now in the midst of a “simulated” one. Fire creeped along the ceiling two feet above our heads.
Black smoke enveloped everything except the glowing flames. As I sat, head to toe in full fire gear, in this burning shack, taking hurried breaths through my mask from the 25-pound air tank strapped on my back, I recalled how it was I ended up here.
It was all my editor’s fault. He had nagged me for weeks about attending this training seminar the Jefferson County Fire Department wanted to put on for the media, to provide journalists a better understanding of the duties and responsibilities of Louisville’s firefighters. Seemed all well and good for a daily paper or TV station, who cover fires on a daily basis. But LEO? We don’t have a police radio at our headquarters; we don’t rush out to snap pictures of house fires. So I avoided his inquiries. Until he finally caught up with me while I was in a compromised state.
He sent me (on assignment, I stress) to a luncheon at Browning’s where they revealed their newest Bourbon Barrel Stout to the press. It was yummy, as were the 12 other samples of beer I swallowed down. I stumbled back to the office, fell into my desk chair and attempted to search a story for periods and semicolons that were now swirling around the page.
“Hey, Sara, yes or no on that fire thing?” Cary shouted from his office. Afraid he might come closer to talk if I said no — and the thought of roughing it with fellow journalists and perhaps meeting some cute fireman — I quickly said, “Yes … OK … what?”
So there I was, trapped in an inferno, with WHAS-TV’s Joe Arnold as my guiding savior. Highview Fire District Deputy Chief Dave Goldsmith was in charge and, I assumed, in control of the ferocious fire before us. Equipped with only a water hose, he would tame the roaring flames as they inched closer and closer to our helmets. One by one we rotated spots on the bench so we could experience all angles of a flashover. Dave was as smitten with the fire as a kid with a new puppy. There was no fear, just pure admiration for something he must face every day.
We all made it out alive, all five of us — myself, Joe, Jessie Halladay from The Courier-Journal and Paul Ahmann and Andrea Stahlman from WLKY-TV — who are more at home in fluorescent-lit cubicles than on our hands and knees (well, some of us, at least) escaping a burning building. The three-day training was intense but well worth the time off from our daily grinds. We met many of Louisville’s finest and bravest firefighters and got a tiny taste of the emotions they deal with daily.
“We know every day that when we get on that truck, we may never come back,” Highview Chief Rick Larkins told us on Day 1. As we went over statistics and fire prevention and safety and accountability, I jotted down a few things that struck me. Like people just don’t move over for fire trucks anymore — 22 percent of firefighter deaths every year are caused by traffic accidents involving firetrucks. And the average head-to-toe firegear for one man costs around $4,700. And most firefighters are volunteers, because the money just isn’t there to employ a full-time staff. And it takes about six months to a year of training to be a fireman, and there’s a 50-percent failure rate among each class of new recruits. And finally, firefighters don’t really rescue cats from trees. Really.
The time spent hands-on with the firemen (wait, did that come out right?) was by far the most intense, fun and beneficial part of the three days. We got to chop up two cars with heavy, huge hydraulic tools (that most people call the “Jaws of Life”). Jessie took a shine to cutting glass, while Joe got quite proficient with a high-powered spreading tool. I stood back and pretended to take notes, although I did ask if I could kick out the taillights, to which Middletown Division Chief David Thompson advised me it would not be something that would help the trapped victim, had there been one present — “but go for it,” he said.
We practiced with extinguishers and learned the ins and outs of fire ventilation — sometimes it’s necessary to cut holes in a roof or break windows to let the smoke and heat escape. We climbed ladders (not fun if you’re mildly afraid of heights — I was the wimp here) and humped some hose (an actual term firefighters use for getting the hose inside the building).
We experienced the aforementioned flashover and watched clips of deadly backdrafts (which happens when a fire becomes so deprived of oxygen, if a firefighter were to open a door or window, the immediate rush of oxygen would result in an explosion; or it could simply signal the end of your career, as in William Baldwin’s case).
The last mission to be completed was to crawl into an actual burning building, hose and henchman in tow, and put out the fire. Once again I was paired with Joe, and once again he came to my rescue as I became disoriented in the dark, hot hell-hole. I was his hose-humper the first time and was to merely crawl behind him. He calmly approached the fire, pulled the nozzle and killed the raging flames. As he crawled for the door, however, I lost hold of his foot and ended up stuck in corner. I lost my hose, my partner and nearly my life (cue the string section).
I made it out, took a breather and readied myself to enter again — this time at the trigger, Joe my humper.
Let’s just say I succeeded and leave it at that. I didn’t freak out this time, but the fire was only about seven feet from the door (thanks, guys), so I still had some light to guide my way. Mission completed. Time for a beer.
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