Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Firefighter For a Day

Who hasn't looked at firefighters in action and thought, just for a minute, I'd like to do that? This Monday I had the chance to be a firefighter for seven minutes and seventeen seconds. That was enough.

One of the units at 14 Wing I serve as chaplain is the Wing firehall. This group of roughly thirty firefighters provides crash and rescue support to all air operations on the Wing, as well as firefighting support to all Wing buildings and residential quarters. They also have agreements with other fire departments in this part of the Valley to assist them if needs be.

Each year these guys have to do a firefighter fitness test, which features activities unique to their trade. It's totally different than the standard Express Test done by all other Canadian Forces members. Each firefighter is required to wear full bunker gear and breathing apparatus, and has eight minutes to do a series of activities such as climb a ladder so that both feet are on the tenth rung, five times up and down:

Carry a heavy object (the cutters of the jaws of life)about fifty metres:

Other stations include dragging a 180 pound dummy, "Rescue Randy", about fifty metres, carrying rolls of hose and dragging a fuly charged hose, simulating a forced entry by hitting a large tire full of sandbags with a twenty pound slege so that the tire moves five feet down the length of a table, positioning a thirty foot ladder against a wall and taking it down again, and dragging about forty pounds of coils hose and couplings about fifty metres using ropes.

You have to complete the course without depleting your air bottle, and as you are breathing hard with all this physical exertion, you are sucking a lot of air. A few guys came close to running out.

Chaplains spend a lot of time "loitering with intent" to get to know the troops we serve, and so I spent Monday morning watching the guys go through their paces. The firefighters ranged in age from the young twenties to the mid fifties and they turned in some impressive times, some finishing the course in under six minutes. I had asked if I could suit up and try the course, and when my time came at the end, and they said "OK padre, want to give it a try?", I was both nervous and excited. Well, most nervous that I'd embarrass myself in front of these guys, who seemed politely sceptical that I'd manage to succeed. The deput chief, MWO Martin, leant me his gear ("already pre-sweated", he joked) and the guys quickly and efficiently kitted me out. I was good to go.

The first thing you feel when you put on the bunker gear is the weight. It's heavy and restrictive and it takes effort to bring your knees up. Then, with the breathing gear on, you realize that you're about sixty pounds heavier than normal. I imagine this is how divers feel before they go into the water. Once the air bottle is hooked up to your mask you can hear the air coming out of it as you breath, shockingly loud and almost echoing inside the mask. With the gloves and the helmet on, only the ears and a bit of the neck is exposed - every other part of your body is covered. It was now 11:30am, the heat was getting up to its midday high, and I was grateful that I was only wearing my running shorts and shirt under all this gear.

Pam, from Personnel Support Services, who run the test, started her watch and I was off. Carrying the coiled hose was easy enough. Getting the ladder up and against the wall was hard work - I realized how much these guys work on their upper body strength. Dragging the charged hose, I realized how hard this would be, and really leaned into it, my feet seemingly encased in lead as I struggled forward. My breathing was coming hard now. Fortunately one of the guys showed me how I could touch a button on the mask and get a little extra shot of air, which helped me as I headed for the ladder. I'd seen the others struggle on this part, and they all said how the lactic acid in the leg muscles built up quickly on this part. With my heavy boots I felt clumsy on the rungs, and the second and third time up I was dragging and panting hard. Down the third time. Thank god. A little walking rest to my next station, dragging the hose using the ropes. I remembered that the guys really bent over and got a rhythm going as they pulled. A couple of times I lost my grip on the hose and almost fell, but I managed. How much time left? I had no idea.

Now over to the tire. Banged at it madly with the sledge. That's good, Pam said. Over to Rescue Randy. Fortunately he had a little harness on. Fortunately he's not as heavy as a few of the air crew I've seen around here. Heavy enough. Crap, back to the ladder. Two more times up and down. My legs are like rubber. I'm dying. Almost down now, take the other ladder down and put it back. That's fairly easy, gravity's my friend here. OK, done. I can hear some cheering now, barely audible over the sound of my breathing. I'm stumbling a bit. Over to the jaws of life. Last station. They're fricking heavy, and I'm losing my grip. Hug them to my chest and stagger 25 metres and 25 metres back. Almost drop them. Done. Hands are helping me get the mask off. I'm soaked in sweat. Pam tells me my time. Seven minutes and seventeen seconds. Forty-three seconds to spare. I'm grinning like a fool.

Here's me and MWO Martin, after my test.

So the next time I visit these guys, or the next time I see a firetruck racing to a call, I will know a little bit more about what it takes to make a firefighter. Knowing a bit about the other guy's life is a big part of chaplaincy. As one of the guys said to me, "You want to walk a bit in my shoes, do you padre?" Yup. And I found that they are big shoes, or in this case, boots.


Pete said...

Nice Job padre, you can come down to the states and help out anytime!!

Bernard von Schulmann said...

I am impressed at how well you did, those tests are not easy by any measure.

Congrats on your time.


ps I am really enjoying reading your blog

JoHo said...

just letting theauthor and yall alike THI WAS A GOOD READ; thinking about taking a firefighter course before regular force.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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