To the point week of 10-8-09

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When Chris See told me that some of the county’s volunteer fire departments were doing a “controlled burn” of a house in Vevay on Sunday afternoon, I was generally interested.

When he asked me if I’d like to go inside a burning building – my answer came quickly.

“Absolutely”.

I mean, how many times does an untrained, middle aged man get the chance to walk inside a building while it’s on fire?

On purpose?

Arriving at the house, which was located at the corner of Jackson and Pike streets in Vevay, as I crossed the street I began to see flames shooting out of the holes in the house where windows used to be. Devin Scudder of Vevay had donated the building to the fire departments for training purposes, and firefighters from Jeff-Craig, East Enterprise, and Patriot were on hand to get some first-hand training that everyone hopes that they never have to use.

Now I’ve sat around my share of campfires in my time, but walking up to within a few feet of a two-story building with fire shooting out the windows was quite a different story.

That’s when I began to think maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to say yes.

“There you are,” Scotty Sullivan, a new member of the Jeff-Craig department, said as he crossed over to me.

“You’re on the fire department?” I asked.

“Yes,” was his response.

“Why aren’t you in turnout gear”” was my next question, as Scotty was dressed in a while golf shirt and blue slacks.

“That’s for you today,” he grinned.

Okay,, so he’s just learning, but he’s at least on the department. I, on the other hand, am walking in cold off of the street (pun intended).

That’s when we began looking for Chris.

Pretty soon Chris See emerged from around the front of the house, dressed in full fire gear with a big smile on his face. He walked me around to the back of the house, where two female firefighters were handling a fire hose to keep the building from burning too quickly.

After all, this was for training.

Chris invited me to walk up to a window hole on the back of the building, where I could see through to the front door. Firefighters were coming in that door; walking into an inferno of Hell that I was having trouble comprehending from my safe spot outside.

“You ready?” Chris said.

“Sure,” I heard myself say.

Obviously I needed some gear, so we walked around to the front of the house, where Chris asked an East Enterprise firefighter to shed his gear and give it to me. Chris asked a couple of other firefighters to help me get into the gear; and I thought I could surely put on some turnout gear (that’s what they call the gear, now that I’m not a novice anymore).

By the way, a set of turnout gear costs about $3,000 – and up until the county firefighters began getting revenue sharing funds from the county and Belterra – the firefighters paid for it themselves most of the time. Who’d walk into a 1,000-degree fire, and pay $3,000 for the privilege? Remember that the next time one of our departments has a fundraiser.

First came the boots, which had the trousers pushed down around the tops of the boots. All I had to do was step in the boots and pull up the suspenders and the pants were on, no problem, right?

Problem.

Trying to keep my balance was hard with the boots and the heavy pants, so a couple of the firefighters let me lean on them while I pulled my pants up.

After fixing them up the front, another piece wrapped to the right and hooked in place. Then the red suspenders came up and over my shoulders.

At this point I spotted Audrey Furnish, and handed her the camera, so I wouldn’t fall over and break it.

Next came the jacket, which would be wonderfully warm in the dead of winter, but when you’re about to walk into a burning building, it was heavy and thick and hot.

Will Hutchinson of the Patriot department told me that firefighters can come out of a fire for a break, take their coats off to get some air, and then put the coat back on over their sweat-soaked tee-shirts.

“When you go back in the fire, if it’s hot enough it will take the sweat and make steam,” Will said. “I’ve seen guys get steam burns from the heat of the fire.”

Wow. I’m trying not to sweat, but that’s impossible between the sunny day, the heavy gear, and my nerves.

With the coat on, it zips up the front and then Velcro holds the flap in place. At the ends of the sleeves are protective sleeves that my hands go through. There’s also some neck band of some sort that will wrap around me like a noose after I put the fire-proof head gear on.

I slide the head gear on, looking like a race car driver, and my fire buddies tell me to push it back until I’m ready to go in, so I do.

“We’re ready to go in,” Chris says.

Great.

So the head gear goes on, then the neck noose goes around. My firefighter helper then takes me through the process of putting on my oxygen facemask. I slide it over the head gear, then place my hand over the front hole and breath in heavily to make sure there’s a seal on my face.

If that’s not enough, a couple of others come over with my air tanks, which thankfully are now made of a fiber material rather than heavy metal tanks of the past.

They hook the air tank to the front of my facemask and tell me to take a deep breath to activate it.,

That was the easiest part of the day.

Then I got my helmet, which every kid on the planet dreams of putting on. Strapped in place, they gave me a pair of heavy gloves to complete my protection.

The firefighters helping me said that to be a firefighter, you had to be able to put everything on that I had just gotten help with by yourself in two minutes.

It took me, with help, about 20.

Encased in fire protection, it was then that I remembered that I was going to have to shoot some pictures in this outfit.

Audrey took one last picture, with me giving the “thumbs up”, and handed me the camera.

Now there are some things that a person just isn’t supposed to do: step out of a perfectly good airplane; hand feed a grizzly bear;

And walk INTO a burning building.

But these men and women do it whenever they are called on.

And they do it for free.

Walking in the front door, Chris tells me to stay behind him. We head to the left and into a room that’s filled with smoke. Fire is creeping up the door frame in the corner.

That’s where we head.

I stop to take some photos, somehow pointing a camera through a helmet shield and pushing the camera shutter with my heavily gloved finger.

It was then that I heard a beeping sound – and I don’t think you should hear a beeping sound in a burning house.

“Wiggle” Chris commands.

I beg your pardon?

“Wiggle. If you stop moving for a period of time, the air tanks start beeping so that your fellow firefighters can come in and get you,” Chris said. “It’s a safety feature for us.”

And a very good one, if you ask me.

So I wiggled.

In fact, I wiggled several times, because firefighters don’t stay still very long inside a building ranging at around 1,000-degrees – hotter if there’s living room furniture, according to Will.

We go through the burning door way and I’m trying to see Chris, who’s just in front of me, but the smoke is so heavy that he’s hard to make out.

“Look up,” he says as he turns around.

So I do.

What I find is a sea of burning orange right over my head. The second floor of the building is engulfed in flames, and it was the most surreal moment of the entire time.

It was then that it hit me – I was standing inside of a raging fire.

If you’ve read the story of Shadrack, Meschack, and Abednego in the Book of Daniel in the Bible, then you know that they were thrown into a fiery furnace – and lived.

I got a feeling what that was like.

Walking into a room at the back corner of the house, I’m trying to find something to take a picture of while Chris is pointing out hot spots and pieces of burning house like he’s showing me pictures of his vacation.

Then what I would describe as a fire ball lit up the first room that we were in, and Chris decided that maybe it would be a good idea to go out the back door rather than retracing our steps.

I was all for that.

“This is Chris,” he said into his radio to his fellow firefighters outside. “Pat and I are going out the back door rather than coming back out the front. Repeat: we’re going out the back door.”

Outside, Chris told me that it is important for firefighters to maintain contact with each other, so that each and every person who walks into a burning building is accounted for and they come out of that building.

By this point, my admiration for these men and women (yes, there are women on county volunteer fire departments) has skyrocketed. I can’t help but think about the devotion and dedication to this county and to the people who live here that these folks must have in order to do this when called upon.

“You’re either the bravest people I’ve ever met – or the dumbest,” I tell Will Hutchinson.

“Probably closer with dumbest,” he laughs.

I’m taking the other side.

Out of the burning building, I take off my helmet for some air, and I grab a quick sip of water before Chris decides that we need to go up in the new ladder truck that’s parked in the street.

With the ability to rise to 125-feet, the ladder can get firefighters to the 13th floor of the hotel at Belterra; along with any other structure in the county.

Still in turnout gear – because with these people, it’s always safety first – we get safety harness belts and I try to strap one around myself, which involves the air tanks and the big jacket and my own hefty self.

Chris helps, but it hangs low, and about halfway up it’s time for me to wiggle because the beeper is going off – and my harness falls around my ankles.

We stop and readjust the belt, this time getting it in the correct position for the rest of the ride. As we go up I have to wiggle a couple of more times – so often, in fact, that I find myself sort of swinging back and forth like the little kids used to do on the old “Uncle Al Show”. (Raise you hand if you have that image in your head. Yes, I thought so).

At the top of the tower, I can look straight down on the burning house, as well as see all around the community. In fact, off in the eastern distance, I could see Belterra, eight miles away. The view was spectacular, but I was there to learn about firefighting.

Chris tells me that the new ladder truck, with a price tag of over $500,000, is the highest ladder in Southern Indiana, and Rich Lay, who’s handling the ladder duties at street level, says through the radio that there are all sorts of features on the bucket of the truck that makes fighting a large fire much more safe for firefighters.

There are air nozzles that allow firefighters to connect there for oxygen, saving the precious air in their tanks for another time.

There’s also a water cannon mounted on the top, as well as a “porch” for those times that the firefighters have to leave the safety of the bucket.

It was impressive, to say the least.

Back on the ground, Chris excuses himself so that he can go direct a few more firefighters into the building before they allow it to be consumed by the flames.

I start to undress from my turnout gear, and thankfully a couple of firefighters again come to my rescue – isn’t that appropriate – to balance me as I come out of the gear.

Soaked in sweat, I put my shoes back on, check the camera to see if I got anything at all, and took a few minutes to survey what I had just done over the past two hours.

To say that it was fun would be unfair to the men and women who put their lives on the line each time a fire company is paged out. Actually, it was more eye opening, because it gave me an intensely personal view of what these people do. They go through training and their spend their own money and they work to raise money and they maintain equipment and they spend time away from their families.

All preparing to do something that they pray they never have to do. No one wants to walk into a burning house and hunt for a person or try and save precious memories of the people who live there.

For most of us, the thought of a building we are in being on fire would cause us to run out to safety.

As we do, we’ll be passing firefighters on their way in to help.

And they do it all as volunteers.

They are heroes.

- Pat Lanman