By MELINDA J. OVERSTREET
Glasgow Daily Times
I’ve mentioned before that I’m five-feet-nothing and a klutz. Knowing these things, especially the latter, about myself does not help in scenarios where heights are concerned – not so much the reaching up part of heights, but the potentially falling from them.
I can stand on the highest publicly accessible roof of the Empire State Building and be just fine, because there’s a sturdy fence between the edge and me, but have me stand on something the height of a table even, depending on the surroundings and what’s available to steady myself or grab just in case, and it’s another story.
So, when I heard the Glasgow Fire Department was going to have some participatory elements – including rappelling – as part of a media day planned to increase our understanding of what happens at the scene of a fire or other emergency situation and what the job entails, I saw it as a chance to face some of that fear.
What better time? I can’t imagine trusting anyone else as much as these guys to do this. After all, if you can’t trust people for whom a primary part of their livelihood is saving people’s lives to help you down the side of a 40-foot building, who can you trust?
I climbed the flights of stairs – some of which are composed of that metal “mesh” you can see through – with the very sturdy rail to the left and a wall within reach on the right with every intention of rappelling from that roof. Then came the ladder to the roof, from which I would have to step over something about a foot high to get to the actual surface. About two-thirds up the ladder, I decided it wasn’t going to happen. Even though a huge part of my brain knew without a doubt they wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me, the part that knew about and didn’t trust my klutzy self overruled it.
I watched from outside the building as two others who had never rappelled before successfully accomplished the feat, so now I know better what to expect, and I decided that the next time, I’m going to do it. Yessirreee.
Firefighters around here have few calls that require such skills, but it’s comforting to know that when the need arises, they’re prepared to do it.
The day had begun with classroom time to learn about some of the everyday terminology, equipment and procedures in the firefighting world and other emergency services. A team from Air Methods came and told us about their procedure for responding to situations that require helicopter ambulance services.
Afterward, we got to practice operating the fire hose. It doesn’t take long for it to feel pretty heavy, especially when you’re wearing an extra 20 pounds or so already with the turnout gear – boots, pants, coat, hood, helmet and gloves, and you’re counterbalancing with the pressure pushing out the water, and when we did it, the water pressure was only about half what it is under ordinary circumstances. My existing sense of physical awkwardness was magnified with the size 12ish boots on my size 5 feet and the extra half-inch or so in the gloves at the ends of my fingers, but amazingly, the pants were just the right length. Yay for not having to trip over them, but considering that a set of gear costs more than $2,000, it’s not like they could just run out and purchase extra sets for our sizes. It’s intriguing how the design, materials and technology that goes into making those has evolved to address safety concerns and real situations that have occurred.
After the rappelling, the day culminated with a search-and-rescue mission. We donned the turnout gear again, this time with the oxygen tank – called an air pack – that weighs almost 20 more pounds strapped to our backs and connected via a hose to the face masks we were wearing. The hood, by the way, is a tobogganlike, but with lighter fabric, head garment that goes all the way down around the neck and has one large hole for the face in the front; it goes on before the mask and, of course, the helmet.
It seemed that no matter how much I adjusted the straps on my mask, I couldn’t get an airtight seal all the way around. While getting my breathing regulated under the mask, periodically I would hear this bubbly, gurgly sound and could feel the edge of it slightly lift next to my left eye. It was scary to think about the potential ramifications of that in a real-life situation.
After some basic instruction, we were tasked with crawling – the way firefighters enter and go through a structure the majority of time, not running in on two feet, for good reasons I comprehend better now – into and around a room that was pitch dark and (fake) smoky and locate a firefighter who was down and a baby, both in the forms of training mannequins. We had it easy, because for this exercise, we only had to bring out the baby, not the 165-pound firefighter. Along the way, we were to announce anything we felt once we identified it – a barrel, a folding chair, a coiled, empty fire hose. I thought I’d found what might be spindles on a baby’s crib, but then realized there was a diagonal empty space along the bottom of them; alas, it was only the stair rail. The adult, however, was at the bottom of the stairs, found by my cohorts who wanted to show their strength and bring out the firefighter even though it wasn’t required; that idea fell to the wayside pretty quickly when we realized just how difficult that was going to be while still crawling. We backtracked and finally found the baby and got out of there. The whole thing took maybe 20 minutes, 30 tops, but it seemed like a lot longer.
Mind you, we weren’t even charged with attacking a fire at the same time, which would have required bringing an active hose along. This meant we got to stay dry; a soaked set of gear weighs about three times more, Chief Tony Atwood pointed out. And this was one room on one level; I couldn’t even fathom covering a multiroom structure or doing this on stairs that you can’t see, let alone see through. When I had commented about the mesh stairs earlier, I was reminded that being able to see through the stairs is usually not an issue when the real deal is happening. In fact, during training, firefighters often have a black veil of sorts over their faces to get them used to doing things without being able to see, because that’s usually the reality with a structure fire.
I really appreciate the work of the folks who planned this event and all who contributed and participated to make it happen. To the firefighter who helped me get my gear all strapped and situated for the search and rescue, an extra thanks for your patience. And to the ones, especially the captain, who humored my desire to have pictures to capture these experiences, including the one that didn’t happen, thank you as well.
At least for me, the day definitely served its purpose. While I’ve long valued firefighters and other emergency services personnel, getting these glimpses of the details involved in making their work happen increased my level of understanding and admiration. I’m already looking forward to the next time.
Melinda J. Overstreet is a staff writer for the Glasgow Daily Times. She can be contacted by e-mail at moverstreet@ glasgowdailytimes.com.