By RUSSELL HUFFMAN
When the email arrived a couple of weeks in my inbox inviting me to “Fire Chief School,” I was a little surprised. I know a little bit about firefighting after trailing behind our local heroes for longer than I will confess, but wow “Fire Chief School” seemed a little much.
Now, I do admit, I might have skimmed through the email from Fire Captain Cody Wells, but I clearly saw this was the 101 Class, which obviously meant based on my “experiences” as a journalist I was going to get credit for classes 1-100 and skip to the front of the line.
So I arrived bright and early (or around 8 a.m.) Saturday morning at the fire department’s training ground located out on Airport Road and quickly sought out Assistant Fire Chief Chuck Elliott.
“Chuck, I hope you aren’t taking it poorly that they are letting me skip those first 100 classes and letting me enroll straight into Fire Chief School,” I said. “I know you’ve worked here a long time and I’ll be depending on you.”
Believe it or not Chuck rolled his eyes at me and explained Fire Chief Jimmy Chew wasn’t quite ready to give up his role and there might be one or two more classes I would need before applying for the job any time soon.
“This is Fire Ops 101,” Chuck laughed. “Think of this school as a ladder and right now you are on the bottom rung.”
Now Fire Ops 101 might be the bottom rung of the firefighting ladder, but I’m here to tell you it’s a BLAST! While I don’t normally write in a first-person form, it seems fitting in this case so bear with me as I explain the day’s activities.
The next time they hear a fire truck’s siren, those attending the first Fire Ops 101 class will have a greater appreciation for their community firefighters after taking part in the “mini fire academy” hosted by the Stephenville and Erath County Volunteer fire departments.
Outfitted in full bunker gear Stephenville Mayor Kenny Weldon, council member Mark McClinton, city administrator Allen Barnes, journalist Ashley Ford and yours truly took an active role as the first students to take the class. Council members Alan Nix and Sherry Zachery also took part in the class in a limited role and as first-hand observers.
First of all – it’s HOT inside the smoke house! Most of the time you can’t see anything only the occasional glimpse of the fire fighter in front. If you are on the search team you find yourself on your hands and knees with one hand firmly attached to the foot of the person in front of you. You make wide sweeps with your other hand and feet as you blindly search for possible victims. If you are on the hose you are battling your way along with the aid of other firefighters and it is hot and heavy labor. It seems anything associated with firefighting is heavy, including your breathing when you round an interior corner and you see flames licking at the galvanized ceiling.
It’s a little hard to stay calm as you see the flames and the smoke starts to get thicker. It’s definitely hotter almost like when you open the hot oven door at home and feel that rush of heat on your face. The biggest difference – you are in the oven and the heat doesn’t suddenly go away, it just gets hotter. Taking a knee in front of the fire drops you into a cooler temperature zone, but your heart’s still racing from the adrenaline and exertion of pulling the house into the building.
Following orders, Mayor Weldon blasted the ceiling with water as I held onto the hose behind him and the visibility instantly improved. With further instructions, together we helped vent the room of smoke with the air of the firehose and a window.
All my talk about my heart racing and adrenaline might make this sound like a “scary” experience. In truth, the experience is more like a scary rollercoaster ride. Yes, it was scary, but all students taking part actually went back for a second helping when they found out there was enough time to do a second exercise.
It wasn’t all about battling a blaze and just like real firefighters we all got to get hands-on experience with some really awesome power tools. The Jaws of Life and hydraulic cutting tool are amazing pieces of equipment and those trained to use them can be the difference between making it out alive.
Included in the morning’s activities was a 45-foot climb (seemed like 200) up the ladder truck and it came with getting a pretty darned good look at the city from above. I spent several minutes enjoying the view and waiting for my heart to slow down enough so I could attempt the climb down. We also took part in some CPR, boarding a victim to a stretcher and then carrying the “injured” to a waiting helicopter.
Plainly put, I lack the space to fully tell about the experience of attending the Stephenville and Erath County Fire Department’s first Fire Ops 101 Class other than to make a recommendation. If you should be lucky enough to get the opportunity to be invited or selected to attend a class – jump at the opportunity. It will give you a great appreciation of the job the men and women serving our community do as firefighters and emergency responders and it’s also one heck of a good time.
More classes are planned for area residents in the future and for those wanting to potentially help out the fire departments in a “not firefighting” role might be interested to learn Stephenville now has a Community Response team. The team’s role is still being outlined but includes helping in support areas like traffic, switching out air bottles and more which allows firefighters to concentrate on other items.