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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.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 7th, 2005 04:36 pm (UTC)
Wow. You're kind of like superheroes without the powers but with the expensive, heavy, and hi-tech gear, eh? :)
Oct. 8th, 2005 08:41 am (UTC)
Real life Batman?
Hmmmmm ... I never thought of it like that. Of course, it depends on your definition of heroic. To me, a hero is someone who's afraid to do something, but does it anyway because it will help someone else. Using that definition, the most heroic thing I do in the fire service is teach classes (I'm our training officer), because I have a fear of public speaking. Running into burning buildings, on the other hand -- no problem.
To me, cops are real heroes. All I deal with is fire -- they deal with people, and THAT'S scary. :-)
Oct. 7th, 2005 06:55 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this.

It reads as if you actually buy some of your own equipment - surely not?
Oct. 8th, 2005 08:34 am (UTC)
It's a volunteer thing
Generally we don't buy our protective equipment. But just after I joined the department a salesman came around with a new style of helmet, which we called "Darth Vader" helmets. At the time the few extra helmets my department had wouldn't fit me, not to mention I didn't yet have children to pay for, so I went ahead and bought his demo model. These days the protective clothing is all paid for, but we buy our own flashlights, pay half the cost of our dress uniforms, and buy our own volunteer blue lights.
But as volunteers we also get what's called a "clothing and car allowance" to make up for the cost of gasoline, lost work time, ruined clothing and such, so financially we just about break even. So at least I'm not losing money, like I am with fiction writing. :-)
Oct. 8th, 2005 08:26 pm (UTC)
Re: It's a volunteer thing
Almost all of our firemen here on the Island are volunteers - only the main fire station has full time paid ones, the other five have volunteers on call out. As far as I know they get all their stuff provided - but it had never occured to me that they might not!

Outside the area of the main station the firemen were always called by siren - and even though they all have pagers/mobiles etc. these days, they still sound the siren of the relevant station whenever there is a call-out.
Oct. 9th, 2005 05:28 am (UTC)
Re: It's a volunteer thing
We still have the siren, mounted on top of the old fire station where our town hall is now, but it's only used during tornado warnings. Communications have progressed so much now that everyone has a pager, and they're greatly reliable. Much better than the original bell!

There are 9 fire departments in Noble County, manning 11 stations. Two of them are a combination of full time and volunteer members, and here in Albion we have one part time position, along with 33 volunteers. We only have to drive for about half an hour to get to Fort Wayne, which has an all career department, so we can see the whole gauntlet at work around here.

You probably shouldn't get me going on about firefighting too much: It's right up there with writing, Buffy, and sex on my list of favorite topics. (Not necessarily in that order.) Someday I'll write a story combining all of the above.
Jan. 13th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
you know, beside the fact how important that theme is and that I'm impressed with all that high-tech, your writing style REALLY cracks me up

*tries not to snort her drink through the nose again, whilst reading*
Jan. 14th, 2007 10:12 am (UTC)
The main goal of my column writing -- usually -- remains to make people laugh! So I'm glad.

Sorry for not warning you about the drink. :-)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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