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October 7th, 2005

SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
I like to honor Fire Prevention Week by paying tribute to firefighters, which is kind of self serving, considering I am one.
I’m a lucky guy, having never ended up in a cast or operating room, but of the more serious injuries I have sustained, all but one came while serving as a firefighter. (I see no need to go into detail about the whole ex-wife/cast iron skillet thing.)
Firefighting has gotten less dangerous over the years, thanks to safety practices and technology. In fact, an entire industry has sprung up to protect us, and we’ve also benefited from an increased realization among firefighters that getting killed is bad.
The first time I entered a burning building, my protective ensemble consisted of three-quarter length rubber boots, blue jeans, and a Central Noble windbreaker. I know what you’re thinking: “Gee, he must have been brave”. You’re not thinking that? Well, you’re right – I wasn’t brave, just ignorant of the dangers. When I enter a burning building today, I’m carrying protective clothing, safety equipment, and other gear that costs upwards of five thousand bucks.
This makes me feel safer. And tired.
I spent $52 on my first helmet, but they go for well over $200 these days. The design comes complete with earflaps and a face shield, and that funky bill in the back designed not to make us look cool (it’s never cool in that stuff), but to keep embers and water from running down inside our coats. Helmets are made of either a composite material or good old fashioned leather, which is the preference of many firefighters. But not cows.
Most helmets have big honkin’ numbers on the front plates, to make us easier to identify. For instance, the Albion Fire Department’s number is 9: So our rural pumper is Pump 91, the Chief is 901, and you can sort me from the crowd by looking for the number 914. Churubusco firefighters respond under the “200” number, and so on. Screaming “Hey you!” has proven to be ineffective.
Those three-quarter length boots also proved ineffective, especially while lying in a burning stairway with boiling water running into them (I said, while wincing at the memory). We’re now encapsulated in $1,500 worth of triple layered space age turnout coats and pants. (Literally space age – research for manned space exploration resulted in much of the modern equipment firefighters use.)
Once you’ve stuffed into your pockets a flashlight, rescue rope, door wedge, multi-purpose tool, portable radio, and St. Florian medal, you’re dealing with 25 pounds or so just in coat and pants. The helmet weights an extra half ton, especially during overhaul at 3 a.m.
Gloves cost thirty or forty bucks, and offer protection against heat, steam, and junkyard dogs. They’re designed so that, even when soaked through, the hands stay warm. That part doesn’t work.
Boots will cost you two or three more bills, and I’m not talking ducks. Rubber boots, like mine, are heavier, but they’re easier to clean and maintain than the traditional leather. They’ve also got enough steel in them to construct a battleship.
Firefighters once used their ears and necks to tell when it was getting too hot. Then, one day, one of them said, “Hey, have you guys noticed that the skin keeps peeling off our ears, and that no matter what part of the country we come from, we’re literally rednecks?” So along came the hood, which protects the only part of the body not covered by all the other stuff. If you get into areas where you shouldn’t, you can still feel the heat through your hood. I said. While wincing at the memory.
The fire service originally thumbed its nose at self contained breathing apparatus. After all, if a fireman couldn’t take a dose of smoke he wasn’t a fireman, right? Lung disease was just a fringe benefit, like interrupted meals and open-cab responses in January.
These days most fire departments provide an air pack for every on-scene firefighter, to the tune of $2,500 - $3,000 a shot. On a good day, we can battle a fire for about 45 minutes before running out of air. Of course, if it was a good day we wouldn’t be battling a fire at all. Air packs weight thirty pounds and up, and come with such neat items as a battery powered speaker on the mask, so you can talk unintelligibly more loudly.
The newest models contain an integrated personal alert safety system, and if you know the acronym for that device, you PASS. The PASS puts out a truly annoying shriek if the firefighter becomes motionless for a short time. If he’s injured, unconscious, or taking a break and forgets to turn it off, help can reach him immediately.
The original PASS models had to be turned on manually, which was fine, except no one did. Firefighters tend to worry about the safety of everyone but themselves, and besides – the doggone things were annoying. The new ones are integrated – as soon as you open the air valve on your SCBA, the PASS is also turned on. You can happily have your heart attack, secure in the knowledge that the other firefighters have automatic defibrillators, CPR training, and ears.
That’s the gear, all hundreds of pounds of it. We also run into the burning building carrying a hand tool, dragging hose, and – since visibility is pretty much guaranteed to be zero – hauling a thermal imaging camera. All told, protective equipment costs about $4,500 per firefighter, and when you throw in little things like seeing and communicating, it costs about $20,000 to make him fully safe and capable of doing his job.
So support your local fire department, and remember that, since it’s impossible to ever make that job completely safe, the best way to fight a fire will always be to keep it from starting.

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