A test of fire

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The saying goes that it's difficult to understand another person's journey unless you've walked a mile in his shoes. Members of the media and some city officials walked a mile in the rubber boots of a Cape Girar-deau firefighter on Monday and discovered that it's not an easy path.

City firefighters have been training in a vacant house on Bloomfield Road. Mike Peters, owner of California Homes, is developing some land there and was planning to demolish the 1870-vintage brick house sitting on the property. When the fire department asked if they could use it for training, Peters said they were welcome to it.

Monday morning's training was a search and rescue -- entering a burning building looking for possible victims, feeling their way through it because fire actually darkens a room. Southeast Missourian photographer Don Frazier said it's like being blind.

"You can't see your hand in front of you," he said.

In the Bloomfield Road house, a fire was started in a metal tub containing a bale of hay. As the fire developed, the smoke filled the room from the top down until nothing was visible. In the short time it took for the room to fill up, firefighters made a sweep of the periphery of the room, looking for victims and trying not to become disoriented in the dark.

Firefighters can't see what furniture is where or what clutter there might be that would trip them. They go inside not knowing what kind of toxic fumes are emanating from burning carpets, fabrics, drapes, wall paneling or plastic dishes. In some instances, they are exposed to the fumes from a methamphetamine lab that exploded and caused the fire.

They must be prepared for the unexpected: "Even a can of corn in a pantry makes a hell of a noise when it explodes," said firefighter/EMT David Johnson.

From the moment the truck arrives at a burning building, firefighters are already at work. In their minds they're scoping the building and determining how it's laid out, trying to figure out where victims are most likely to be. They're analyzing the smoke coming from the building. Is it the light, puffy smoke of a small fire, or is it the dark, thick and billowing smoke of a fire well underway?

Firefighters train like this often to build knowledge, skill and confidence, Cape Girardeau fire chief Rick Ennis said. Confidence, he said, keeps them from panicking.

When smoke fills the room, the situation is at its most dangerous. Smoke is combustible, Ennis said. When it ignites, everything in the room can ignite at the same time.

"That's what can kill a firefighter quick," Johnson said. "He's in the middle of a ball of flame."

Spraying water on the fire causes the heat to drop from the ceiling downward, but it increases the humidity in the room and the stress on the firefighters. "It literally feels like someone is standing on top of you," Johnson said.

At that point, firefighters will break a window to let the smoke and humidity escape. It also creates an escape route if they need one.

'I couldn't do it'

Visitors were in the burning room for 15 minutes, although Tracey Glenn, the city's public information officer, said it felt much longer. As they gathered outside with the training firefighters, hot, thirsty and sweaty, visitors all echoed, "I couldn't do it."

"I have a newfound respect for firefighters," Glenn said. She has been to fires before as an observer, but seeing it from the inside out, she said, was "absolutely amazing. It was scary. Just putting the gear on was intimidating. I kept thinking about how much we depend on these people to save our kids if there was a fire at our house."

The visitors also learned how firefighters are different from the rest of the world:

Firefighters put their life on the line for people they don't even know.

"We work from here," Ennis said, pointing to his head, "but we are driven from here," pointing to his heart.

It's a tough, physical job. Ennis said he has learned to work smarter as he gets older but affirmed that "it's a young man's work."

There are no ideal working conditions. Johnson said he didn't know which was worse: fighting fires in the winter when the water freezes out of the hoses or in the summer when they're wearing heavy pants and coats, a hood, hat and boots in 90-degree weather while carrying an air pack and knocking down a fire that can easily get as hot as 900 degrees. Yet Johnson said he has wanted to be a firefighter since he was 5 years old.

Firefighters don't put their pants on one leg at a time like everybody else. Actually, they slip the pants of their turnout gear over their boots with their suspenders hooked to the waist. In one fast, easy motion they can jump into their boots, pull up their pants and hook their suspenders so they can get to a fire quickly.

lredeffer@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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