I can't see. I can't breathe. I'm weighed down by 30 kilograms of gear and it's 500 degrees Celsius in here. This is apparently what I signed up for in Fire Ops 101.
Taking advantage of the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver Sept. 16 to 20, the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association invited 35 municipal and provincial politicians and staff - and a few reporters - to take part in Fire Ops 101. It's an intense day of training in some of the same exercises professionals do when they're not being tasked with the real thing.
The intent is to give the policy makers and people who vote on budgets some first-hand experience in what firefighters face, though until we've started, all I hear the politicians talking about is the awful recycling administration the province is about to foist on them.
We are hosted by Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services at their training facility in Strathcona.
My team is made up of Selina Robinson, Coquitlam-Maillardville's newly-elected NDP MLA, City of Victoria Coun. Ben Isitt, and the province's only independent MLA, Vicki Huntington.
District of North Vancouver Mayor Richard Walton had signed up to attend but, at the last minute, called to cancel.
"You're going to put that in the story, right?" says one of the district's crew members volunteering to help run the event.
"Oh, yeah." Walton's alibi is solid though. The only time he could meet with Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Todd Stone was in the middle of the day. The UBCM convention is after all a political event.
Robinson is clearly the popular kid in the class as an entourage of firefighters forms to watch how someone who stands less than five feet is going to gear. She has to be duct taped into her turnout pants, which are the smallest ones the union could find.
The first task of the day is one of the most strenuous, physically and mentally. In full turnout gear, we are expected to follow a hose on our hands and knees through an obstacle course, find a "victim" in a simulated collapsed building and retrieve him. Oh yes, and we are all blindfolded for this as well.
The hose winds and loops around before passing through a narrow box with ropes slung across it. It's meant to replicate the challenge of getting through a tight spot where exposed wires are dangling down and catching on your gear. The hardest spot is fitting through a gap just 16 inches wide, which feels even smaller when you're wearing a helmet and oxygen tank. The reason the course includes a 16-inch gap: that's the space between studs in the B.C. Building Code. Sometimes the only way out of a room is through the wall.
I know that it's just a test and I'm perfectly safe, but the feelings of claustrophobia and panic that come when you're blind and stuck in a small space are real.
I'm much relieved when we're onto the next section of finding the victim (a 150-pound mannequin), but unfortunately this is where my team drops the ball.
All three of my teammates pass right by him. I happen to land right on the dummy but keep going.
In my defence, I could see a little bit through my blindfold and the mannequin clearly had no head so I thought 'Well, there's nothing we can do for this poor bastard now. Better move on and find that survivor.' Perhaps the instructions weren't clear, but I thought this was a rescue, not a recovery.
When our amused handlers point out the mistake, Isitt, who is the real go-hard on our team, leaps into action and singlehandedly brings the headless man to safety.
Next on the agenda is extricating a victim from an auto wreck, which means we get to handle the Jaws of Life and I get to cross off an item off my bucket list.
Our victim - this time a live person with his head very much intact - has to be patient though because even with some tools that I'd love to take home with me, some parts of the car take a while to get through. Offered the opportunity to use a spring-loaded centre punch to shatter the window, I jump at the chance. With just a tiny amount of pressure, it pops and the window is in a thousand pieces.
Robinson prefers the more Spartan method - whaling on the window with a sledgehammer. Having moonlighted as a glass installer during my leaner days as a freelancer, I'm amused to see the hammer method fail even after five direct hits. Tempered glass is extremely strong at the centre of the pane. Eventually, she switches to the punch and the glass explodes. There's nothing like having the right tool for the job.
But glass is only one of the barriers between us and our victim. To get the doors open, we get to use the jaws.
Since the jaws weigh about 30 kilograms, it is seriously difficult for my scrawny journalist arms to gingerly fit the spreaders into a narrow crevice and then hold on as they peel back metal.
As Isitt uses the tool to sheer through the steering column, the car hotwires and the engine revs up before quitting.
Oh yeah, you're supposed to disconnect the battery before doing this, we all acknowledge.
Isitt keeps the steering wheel and proclaims he will display it as a souvenir in his office.
When it comes to biohazards, chemical weapons and radioactive material that hazmat teams deal with, the training is thankfully not hands-on. Instead we get an eerie tour of their vehicle and equipment we'd rather never be used.
The next task is the first time we get to use a hose. The scenario is this: a fire is raging and threatening a rail car that is loaded with oil. If the pressure valve on it malfunctions, the heat could cause it to explode so we need to keep the hose trained on the top of the tanker.
It should be noted, the agenda for the training day was set up before the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster and the news that oil companies are considering rail as an alternative to pipelines, so this is unintentionally topical.
A little worried that it's going to end up like a scene out of Saturday morning cartoons, Robinson asks me to man the hose first, while she offers support by bracing me from behind. I learn when we switch roles that bracing your teammate in front and holding the hose behind is by far the more strenuous task. Robinson handles both swimmingly.
One of the last challenges of the day is by far the toughest test of my fortitude. We are going into the cinderblock building firefighters use to simulate actual structure fires. It's rigged with gas torches that spew flames and heat up some of the rooms above 500 degrees. All there is to see is black but there's no blindfold this time. It's just that dark and smoky in an actual house fire. There's nothing to hear but a roar and the muffled sound that is our instructor handing down orders that would get us out alive. Taking baby steps and lugging a heavy hose, we are operating by feel alone, searching for the source of the flames. It's not hard to knock the flames down in this simulation, but when we're done, our instructor reminds us that real fires burn three times hotter and we'd have a crew half the size.
When the day is done, everyone is exhausted. No one is talking about recycling anymore and I'm basically catatonic, reflecting on the live fire simulation.
As I was experiencing the jarring sensory deprivation of the task, trying to remember my instructions, push down the feelings of panic and handle the hose, I could only come to one coherent thought: I could never do this job in real life and thank God there are those with the will and bravery who can.
As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: "The most stirring symbol of man's humanity toward man that I can think of is a fire truck."
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