Working through the heat

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The closest I've ever come to being in a fire was jumping over celebratory blazes on the streets of Chapel Hill, N.C., after my university won the 2005 national basketball championship.

That was, of course, until Friday, when I attended the Cape Girardeau Fire Department Media Day.

At 8:30 a.m., I arrived at the fire station on South Sprigg Street for breakfast and an informal conversation about the media's relationship with the fire department. Chief Rick Ennis also explained recent equipment purchases, such as additional thermal imaging devices.

I soon found out just how useful they are.

Ennis said the fire department doesn't have the funds yet to build a permanent training facility, so the department depends on the donation or purchase of houses that are marked for demolition for training.

Cape Girardeau Fire Department Chief Rick Ennis, right, monitors the fire created to demonstrate firefighting techniques for meida day on Friday, June 8, 2007, in a home donated to the Fire Department for training purposes. (Kit Doyle)

After we were outfitted with all the necessary equipment, Ennis and other firefighters drove us to one such house the department had recently acquired on Willow Street.

Once firefighters demonstrated the correct use of the equipment, we suited up in full firefighter gear and entered the house.

The heavy suit and bulky oxygen canister made every step a chore. I slowly adjusted to the tight mask that fogged up with every breath I took.

Firefighters stoked a straw fire in the middle of the room to simulate fire conditions, but Ennis made it clear this was tame compared to fires they experience.

"It never got above 200 degrees on the ground in there," Ennis said in our debriefing, adding that he has been in many fires where the temperature rose above 400 degrees.

Southeast Missourian reporter Peter Wylie dons protective clothing before entering a house for training with the Cape Girardeau Fire Department on Friday, June 8, 2007. (Kit Doyle)

As firefighters heaped more straw on the fire, the smoke billowed up and down the walls until I lost sight of Ennis, who was standing only a foot to my left.

That's when he handed me the thermal imaging device. The device senses heat and returns an image reminiscent of a photo negative based on its readings.

I could once again make out the people in the room beside the glowing white fire in the center.

Not only does the device help firefighters locate people and objects in the otherwise impenetrable cloud of thick, gray smoke, but it also allows them to more efficiently spot the source of the fire. Ennis said it's also useful for locating hot spots once a fire is under control.

Once the flames began to lick the ceiling, firefighters sprayed the fire to show us the difference between the fire's dry heat and the steam heat they encounter once they begin fighting a fire. The room quickly turned from a sauna into a pressure cooker.

Cape Girardeau Firefighter Derrick Carlton, right, brought waters to Michelle Hahn, left, and Rhonda Sheeley after the two women left the house fire simulation on Friday, June 8, 2007, as part of a media day. (Kit Doyle)

We crawled along the sides of the room, keeping constant hand contact with the walls, as Ennis had earlier instructed us to do. Firefighters use that method to navigate in a smoke-filled building.

Ennis pointed me to the door, and I left the smoky room after my oxygen tank began to beep, signaling it was low.

Once I got outside, I quickly stripped the mask and jacket off. I've never been so glad to lose a piece of clothing. I sweated so much, it looked like I'd taken a shower while fully dressed.

I still haven't gotten the smell of smoke out of my hair.

While the stench will surely fade, I doubt my newfound respect for the conditions firefighters encounter ever will.

Cape Girardeau Fire Department Captain Mark Starnes disconnects Michelle Hahn's air regulator after she exited the fire in a house on S. Middle St. during media day on Friday, June 8, 2007. (Kit Doyle)

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