If you can't stand the heat ... stay out of the fire department!

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
It's a common misconception among my friends and coworkers that I have a thing for firemen. 

Yes, it may be true that my face is so familiar at the fire department that they gave me my own - personalized ("Fire Department Public Affairs") - T-shirt. Yes, I'm on first name terms with many of the firefighters (British and American), including the deputy fire chief; and yes, I may have ridden on several fire trucks. But hey, I take photos of them during training and exercises - it's my job. 

And as the saying goes, "it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it" - it just happens to be me. And I love it! 

But the real reasons I like the guys from the 100th Civil Engineer Squadron Fire Department are that all the firefighters I know and work with have a great sense of humor, are regularly willing to include me when they train and let me get close to the action to take my photos, but always make sure I stay safe when I'm around them. And let's face it - you don't get a much better wingman than a firefighter. 

So when I got the opportunity to really "play with fire" June 4, when the firefighters let me join them and participate in one of their training sessions at the aircraft/live fire training pit (along with some civilian firefighters from Lajes Field, Azores, Portugal), I leapt at the chance. 

And it immediately gave me a much greater respect for what firefighters here, and around the world, whether military or civilian, go through, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. 

The first thing I got to experience was trying on the bunkers (silver suits) and boots; I felt like I was wearing a sauna suit, as I started to sweat after just a couple of minutes of wearing it! Because it was brand new, straight from the box (and a little on the large side) it was stiff - so much so, I felt like a gallon of starch had been used on it, and that I had a neck-brace on, as the collar came to the top of my neck, and I could barely move my head. 

And talk about shiny! Some of my so-called firemen "friends" thought it hilarious to tell me I looked like a baked potato (yeah - thanks for that, guys ); though I have to say, walking around the fire station in my silver splendor, I did feel a little like a cross between a baked potato and a space man. 

While I'm more than aware that I'm carrying a few extra pounds of my own, all the gear I had to wear weighed me down even more - just the bunkers (jacket, pants and boots) alone weigh about 35 pounds. That, along with the mask and breathing apparatus I also had to be fitted for, plus the gloves and helmet, meant I was carrying a total of around 75 pounds of protective equipment - so I think that entitles me to sweat a little! 

I have to say, it was a huge struggle for me to wear all that equipment, even though it was for less than an hour total. I could barely walk or grip the hose, let alone climb into the aircraft fire trainer with it all on (but yes, I did manage it). 

Yet our firefighters do that on a regular basis when they train; I'm so used to seeing them dressed like that, moving around easily, carrying extra equipment and being reasonably agile in those suits - often for much longer than just an hour at a time - that it doesn't occur to me they happen to be doing it all while carrying an extra 75 pounds or more of safety gear. 

I know there are plenty of others out there who've seen the firefighters suited up and riding around on the fire trucks, either responding to an emergency or doing training, who also don't realize how much the gear weighs. 

But believe me - it's heavy! 

And wearing the mask and breathing apparatus is a pretty surreal experience when you're not used to it. Getting the mask on in the first place is fairly hard, then you have to tighten the straps on the outside to get a good seal, while the rubber part inside fits tightly over your nose and mouth. 

When someone then pushes down the spiro hatch at the front of the mask and you have to breathe in, all the air is suddenly sucked out, and you can't breathe for a second (though it seems much longer) until the positive pressure kicks in and you can get some air again. Very scary stuff! 

Once the breathing apparatus was connected to the mask and strapped on, topped off with a huge silver helmet and visor, cold air then started flowing and blowing around my face, making me breathe in and out much faster- and a lot noisier - than I usually do, because I wasn't used to it. 

When we did get out to the training area on the south side of base (a couple of other "non-firefighter" people got to train with me as well), we waited until the Lajes-Field firefighters had done their training inside the mock aircraft before it was our turn to clamber inside. 

Then, flanked by firefighters to make sure we didn't get into hot water, we took it in turns to pull on the hose and spray water on the fire until it went out. 

Though we didn't get to do it for too long as the trainer was getting low on gas, it was certainly long enough to experience being so close to the fire, and so close to danger. And it was a relief to get the mask, breathing apparatus and bunkers off, before downing several cups of cold water that the firefighters provided for everyone. 

Doing this gave me just a small insight into the dangers these firefighters willingly face regularly, whether during training or in real-world situations, risking their lives to put out aircraft fires and house fires, cut people out of vehicles after road traffic accidents - or deal with even more dangerous situations in war zones. 

I have to say, it was a scary - but thrilling - experience, which I'm glad I got to take part in. I certainly don't take the firefighters for granted, and neither should anyone else. Just from my short experience, I realize that they often have a very tough, very dangerous job, and I am thankful for the on and off base firefighters and all they do. 

Now if only I can persuade another unit to let me take part in their training ...
Danger and excitement? Bring it on!