Turning up the heat with Aurora Local 99
Most interns spend their time getting coffee or making copies.
For the past three weeks I've spent the majority of my day as a Daily Herald intern writing articles about various summer festivals and attempting to figure out the computer database system.
So at 7:51 a.m. on a recent Saturday, bleary eyed and caffeine deprived, I couldn't help but wonder how I ended up at the Southern Kane County Training Site in North Aurora, about to spend the day learning what it takes to be a firefighter.
Luckily I wouldn't be alone.
As part of first Fire Ops 101 program sponsored by Aurora Local 99, I would be one of nine participants taking part in five different scenarios first responders often encounter.
The Fire Ops program, designed by the International Association of Fire Fighters, allows civilians to experience a day in the life of a firefighter and increases awareness about the jobs of different personnel.
I never particularly wanted to be a firefighter when I was younger, nor am I much of an adrenaline junkie now. So when I pulled up to the training facility, I was already a bit uneasy.
Right off the bat I got my first lesson in fire fighting, one that should have been common sense: there are very few petite, 5-foot-2-inch firefighters out there.
As I pulled on my gear I felt like I was playing dress-up in one of my father's suits. Even with suspenders completely tightened, I could pull my sagging pants up to my ears and if I happened to take too large of a step, it was likely one of my boots would fly off.
Next came the equally large jacket and flash hood (think ski mask with a stretched-out face hole), followed by gloves (of the gardening variety in my case) and a deceivingly heavy helmet.
After each of us was suited up, we were divided into three groups. My group, entirely composed of interns donning white T-shirts, was put in the charge of Ray, an amiable member of Aurora Local 99 who has been an EMT for 16 years.
Ready or not, our first 40-minute scenario entailed extinguishing a simulated flashover.
Flashover results from the presence of combustible materials like plastic igniting and occurs anywhere between four and 10 minutes after the fire begins, often just as firefighters appear on the scene.
Kneeling 10 feet away from the simulated blaze, the smallest of fire hoses in hand, I could not begin to fathom what being inside a flashover would be like. With temperatures upward of 1,500 degrees, firefighters trapped in the blaze have only two seconds to escape before they are incinerated.
Stumbling under the weight of my oxygen tank and awkwardly breathing through my mask, I felt the intense kickback from the hose as we dowsed the flames.
Later, as we watched another group put out a second flashover, I realized not only the amount of heat radiating from the blaze, as we were uncomfortably warm standing across the street, but also the distortion of time while extinguishing a fire.
What felt like 20 minutes of spraying in reality took less than three, nowhere near as impressive an effort.
Once we finished what Ray refers to as the "fun part," our group headed over to get our vitals checked and peel off our stifling layers of clothing for our 20-minute break. Only then, after an EMT comments on one of our carbon dioxide levels, do we realize our masks were not secured properly as we fought the blaze.
Thankfully our next activity doesn't require our full fire fighting garb. I head over to EMT training where we learn how to use an EKG and what it's like to transport a patient.
From there we head to the fire and truck operations, housed in a forest green three-story metal tower. Fortunately our activities did not actually take place inside a live burn but instead in a simulated setting with theatrical smoke and propane heaters.
During the next two scenarios we must drag a fire hose to and extinguish a second floor fire as well as remove an unconscious victim from the burning building.
One of the most surprising things I learned during Fire Ops is that the inside of a building on fire is absolutely nothing like what John Travolta taught me in "Ladder 49." Contrary to what movie magic would have me believe, the inside of a burning building is completely black.
At this point I should probably admit that I am still afraid of the dark. A slightly problematic fact for someone pretending to fight fires.
Nonetheless I learned the following about my firefighting abilities over the next two hours:
I am entirely inept when it comes to using an ax and would likely not be able to chop a hole in the roof of a house.
My contact lenses and I do not handle breathing in or being able to see through a firefighter's mask very well.
Trying to drag a 150-pound sandbag mannequin from a "burning building" without standing up is much harder than it sounds.
And most importantly, firefighters are incredible people. I have always admired someone willing to run into a burning building rather than from it. After I cut through car windshields and used the Jaws of Life to pry a door off its hinges, my appreciation for their work only grew.
After more than five hours of crawling, cutting and chopping, I am utterly exhausted but feelingly slightly triumphant for having made it through.
I cannot help but collapse, hair askew and smelling of smoke, into my car for the long drive home.
While I will not be changing my career plans anytime soon, I now fully appreciate the hard work of my local firefighters.
And the best part?
Aurora Local 99 was kind enough to supply us each with our own fire helmet to be mailed at a later date.
Let's just say I'll be waiting by my mailbox.