BY MOUMIN QUAZI
Special to TheFlashToday.com
I knew I was in trouble when I struggled to slip on my firefighter’s coat and pants at the fitting two days beforehand. Inserting oneself into a fire-resistant cocoon is almost like putting on a cinched up sleeping bag with slightly oversized rubber boots. Just the clothing is heavy, compared to my usual jeans and a button-down shirt, the clothes I wear for my day job as a college professor. I teach English, write, and edit for a living. I work with students a lot of the time, but most of the time, I work with words.
What I do for a living would bore most firefighters to death, or terrify them. Public speaking is America’s number one fear. But that’s what I do, day in and day out, until last Saturday, when I was invited to be one of the five civilian community members to participate in Fire Ops 101, a different kind of school.
The event began at 8 a.m. on a beautiful Saturday morning, though preparation began beforehand. I was exhorted to drink lots of water. The word of the day before was “hydrate.” The last time I drank that much water was before my last colonoscopy, but I needed to be hydrated the day I was going into a burning building. I thought to myself, perhaps I’ll burn slower if I’m full of water, knowing that really, I needed to be hydrated so that my vitals would have enough liquid despite my profuse sweating throughout the six hours of intense work.
Work that included cutting cars apart to extricate a crash victim, climbing a ladder up to a three-story platform (and climbing down), rescuing a real person (not a test-dummy) from a car and wheeling him to an awaiting helicopter evacuation team and loading him up, and (the hottest part of the day) gearing up with Darth Vaderesque air masks and SCBA (Scuba without the Underwater “U”) tanks and getting a lecture inside a burning building while a fire raged in front of us.
I had to forego the second trip into that building due to my blood pressure being too low. The EMS workers on the scene checked my vitals, including my blood sugar (which was fine), and decided that though I felt A-1 and ready-to-go, they thought better of it. I wanted to go in, but they protected me not just from the fire. Those courageous medical technicians protected me from myself.
For my Alpha teammates and the Bravo team, that second trip into that building was so hot that the two stokers came running out of the building, placing their arms outstretched (the signal that they need others to immediately strip them down) and throwing their helmets to the ground. One of them looked at me and said, “Feel the rim of that helmet, but be careful.” I did. It was extremely hot to the touch. And it had just been on his head!
It has been said that “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” In my English classes, I teach that this is a metaphor, signifying that great responsibility weighs heavily on a leader. In firefighting, though, not only is the helmet a symbol of great responsibility, it is actually heavy (about three and a half pounds).
Add that to the rest of your “turnout” or bunker gear and you’re toting an extra 45 to 70 pounds, depending on which tools you’re using at the moment. Just wielding the various tools: pincers, spreaders, Halligan tool, ax, and saw (all these combined are known as the “jaws of life”), is exhausting. They’re all heavy. They have to be. They’re tearing things up that were never meant to be torn up.
This job is heavy, too. It’s intense. There are no easy parts to it. The EMS side of firefighting comprises most of what they do, and it’s crucial: answering calls for medical emergencies and trauma. No part of that job is light. Extracting a person who has passed out in her or his bathroom is challenging. Doing CPR and first aid is strenuous.
Moving a person to a stretcher is tough. Moving that stretcher to an ambulance and loading a patient requires enduring focus. And it all happens with a level of concentration and proficiency buttressed with unerring commitment and liberal prayer. Keeping a heart pumping, from the outside of a body, is hard work.
Doing CPR is a good metaphor for work these “firefighter” professionals do. They don’t just fight fires, though. They keep our hearts alive. Citizens are the heart of any town. Erath County is fortunate to have the Stephenville Professional Firefighters Association, Stephenville Fire Department, Erath County Volunteer Fire Rescue, Erath County EMS, Erath County VFD Auxiliary, and Air Evac Lifeteam, which work every day and every night to keep that heart beating. And I learned this more than anything else at Fire Ops 101: I may not have felt the heat as much as the other fighters that day, but I will always feel their heart.