My first call firefighting training session went well and was more challenging than I anticipated. I might as well have left my pencil and pad at home because we jumped right in.
Before I get into the details, I feel pretty committed and have a lot of respect for the folks who are training us. The public service element of firefighting is obvious. We take firefighters for granted, but I suspect I won’t be anymore. Around Boston, you read about them when they die in the line of duty, are pissed about their union contract or have misbehaved largely with respect to booze and drugs (WN has zero tolerance for answering a call if you’d had any booze at all). And we read about their on and off-duty heroics.
To say I didn’t initially do this on a lark would be fibbing, but that call firefighting is so different from my 33 years as a journalist really motivated me (I’m still blogging and freelance writing, of course). It’s physical, very real and all about teamwork which I find appealing. However, I did cover fires for almost three years at the Haverhill Gazette in the seventies when arson was rampant and frequently fatal. I saw buildings and houses burning from a safe distance and remember the chief Lew Burton running on dangerous steep roofs. Haverhill FD was quite busy and less political than its fractious police department which I also covered. Any comparison of West Newbury and Boston or Haverhill with respect to fires is, of course, ridiculous. West Newbury is pretty quiet, averaging about one fire a year and 40 calls a month, some of them false alarms. A call came in last night during training for a woman locked out of her house…lots of mundane stuff. Not sure yet about mutual aid, but there’s plenty going on in the relatively populous North Shore.
I’m told there is serious attrition from, among other things, health issues given the physical strain of the calls and the training. There’s also people who realize or are told they are not cut out for the job. And you have to retire at age 65 which gives me a full five years.
We jumped right in, got in out turnout pants, boots, helmet with visor, fireproof hood and fire jacket. We also got two pairs of gloves (one for auto accidents, the other for fires), a blinding LED flashlight and radio which sits beside me. The gear is heavy and bulky, exacting its toll on the ladder climb. We didn’t do backpacks (air tanks) at this training, but Bob Pierce had me slip one on at the end of the evening. The backpacking I’ve done and more recently biking should stand me in good stead.
You’re supposed to don all this gear in under a minute. Even veterans struggle with this so I will need to practice. You basically jump into your boots and pull the pants up over them. When you take your turnout pants off, you peel off the upper half and leave them inside out over the lower half which are on the boots as if you were wearing them. This allows one to quickly put on the pants and boots at the same time. This a “something (I forget) hitch.”
Word is my gear will be kept at the Garden St. firehouse (Central Station is main West Newbury firehouse) which is about a half mile from my home. They tell me this end of town needs coverage. Glad to be needed.
We climbed ladders (about 25-30 feet), learned a foot lock so you can swing a fire axe to one side without falling backward off the ladder. That involves wrapping the leg opposite to the side you’re working around a rung and then the side of the ladder. House painters should know this.
Then we carried fire axes to the top roof of the fire station and climbed back. We also practiced leg locks halfway up the ladder and swung the axe at an imaginary burning building. Then we donned masks and put our hoods on backward so we couldn’t see and followed a line (hose) to learn how to escape a building when it’s blacker than night. Key here is to find the three large lugs on the male coupling and follow the hose back from it. Claustrophobia and fear of heights came up a few times and I confess to a touch of both. Challenges are the allure of firefighting.
I found the training fun, physically challenging and highly interesting. I’m looking forward to training next Tuesday when we do knots, learn about lines (hoses) and possibly put out a live fire. The firefighters are pretty accepting of me, the newbie. Bob Pierce I know well and Scott Berkenbush, the new chief, is supportive. I know a few other guys a little and there are two women in the training.