Months ago, I gave myself the gift of sleepless nights when I signed up to spend a morning doing some of the training drills usually reserved for new Minneapolis firefighters.
I must have been nuts. I hate heights. I have a bad knee. I have asthma. I am a bit claustrophobic. And I have had too many birthdays for this sort of adventure.
But there I was at the Minneapolis Fire Department Training Facility signing waivers in the early-morning sunshine and wondering what “technical rescue” and “burn building” were all about. I had figured out “vehicle extraction.”
First, it was down the hall to be fitted with huge boots, heavy pants, an equally heavy jacket, a helmet, a hood for under the helmet and leather gloves. The outfit weighs about 50 pounds. Walking was a workout.
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel was there to welcome me and other media colleagues. He was smiling. All he had to do that day was get grilled by the City Council’s Ways and Means/Budget Committee as members deliberate how to divide up funds for 2014. Perhaps he envied our assignments.
‘A fun day,’ he said
“I want this to be a fun day,” said the chief, who also told us we didn’t have to do all of the exercises. He joked a bit about the “burn building,” saying it was a little like a pizza oven and added, “Please don’t get hurt.”
I was with him on that one.
“We have a fun, exciting and scary day planned for you,” said District Chief J.R. Klepp, who was in charge of our training program. He also said they had an ambulance standing by for the entire morning. Just in case.
“Technical rescue” was first on my list. If we had been training as firefighters, we would have climbed to the sixth floor of a tower, pulled on a body harness, hooked two ropes to the harness, stepped over a metal fence and rappelled down the side of the building.
But since we were reporters instead of firefighters, they gave us a break. We didn’t have to go up six floors. We rappelled from the fourth floor.
Have I said I don’t like heights? I don’t even like steep stairs.
‘Don’t look down’
But they hooked me up and said, “Don’t look down.” Backing out was not an option. It was time to forget about my phobias. I was suddenly more concerned about climbing over that metal fence than I was about the four-story drop to the pavement.
“Put your foot here and swing your leg over,” someone said.
“I don’t think I can swing my leg over,” I said.
“Just swing your leg up” was the advice.
I did, and they helped me climb over the fence. I was now hanging on to the fence four stories in the air. Then they told me to sit into the harness. I did. Then they told me to let go of the fence and hang on to the ropes. I did. Then a firefighter dropped over the fence next to me and said, “Just walk down the building.” Together we rappelled four stories to the earth below.
“Just walk down the building.”
This was not a time for personal celebration. The firefighters had gotten me through the exercise. All I had done was let them help me.
I knew what “vehicle extraction” was, but I didn’t know how much the cutters and spreaders weigh. I didn’t know that each post between the bottom of a car and the top has a number, and I didn’t know they slide wooden blocks under a car and then pop the tires to make it stable. That’s if the car involved in the accident is still upright.
Our car still had a sun-dried CD on the dashboard. The group ahead of us had taken off one door. The rest was ours.
“Don’t get between your tool and the car,” said Capt. Shane Thorn, who told us the key to pulling off a door was finding the place where it latches to the car body. After we successfully removed the first door, Thorn said we were going to take off the other two doors, cut the six posts and peel back the roof.
We broke out the side windows with a tiny 6-inch-long tool that looked like an ice pick. Then we poked holes in the windshield with another tool, sawed it up the two sides, across the top and pulled it flat across the hood. We removed the doors, cut the posts and lifted the roof. It took us 45 minutes. If there had been people inside, they might have died by the time we finished.
“It would have taken 10 minutes in the field,” said Thorn. When there are people in the car, there are firefighters inside with them, covering them with blankets to protect them from flying debris.
“Some of the stuff you see you get numb to,” said Thorn. For him, the worst part of the job is when children are involved in an accident. He sees children who were not belted in or children in the front seat where the airbags kill them.
One more stop: the “burn building.” We had seen smoke coming from the concrete structure.
Capt. Jermey Norton told us that we would not be able to see where we were going inside the burn building. It also would be impossible to communicate, and there would be a lot of artificial smoke. The flames would be real but come from natural gas.
“A real fire would be hotter, smokier and more toxic,” he said. His advice was to “stay calm and watch the fire for a few seconds. The fire is not going to come and get you.”
Oxygen tanks and masks
For this, we got oxygen tanks and masks.
The door opened. Smoke rolled out. The reporter in front of me carried the hose nozzle. I carried the hose a few feet behind him. In we went.
I have heard firefighters talk about this experience, about walking into a burning building and not being able to see anything or find the fire. Describing the experience doesn’t do it justice.
They had warned us about the steps. We found them the hard way but didn’t fall. The hose was stiff and heavy. It took both hands. I felt my way along a wall with my elbow. I could not see anything. We could not talk to each other.
And suddenly there was the fire. The guy with the hose nozzle blasted it and nothing happened. There was just more fire.
The instructions had been “put the water where the fire is.”
We hit the fire with more water. The fire was gone, and now we followed the hose back to the door and into the sunlight. It was like a big pizza oven. The chief had been right.
We ditched our oxygen tanks and masks.
“It’s all about time,” said Norton. “It’s about how quick we can get in there to save somebody.” And once they are in, they have 9 to 15 minutes before the alarm goes off on their oxygen tank and they have to get out. In the best of situations, they leapfrog with two crews.
The rest was easy. Pose for a group photo in front of a burning railroad tank car, eat lunch together and figure out what we had learned.
Over lunch, Assistant Chief Cherie Penn explained that they had been vague about what the day would bring because firefighters never know in advance what they will be doing and they wanted to share that sensation with the reporters.
They also wanted us to discover the dynamics of being part of a team.
Reporters are not usually team players. We are competitors. We want to beat the other reporters to a story, we want the most “stuff” in our story and we want our stories featured at the top of the web site or in the first section of the broadcast or on the front page.
We have secrets, but we don’t share. We like each other, but we usually don’t help each other.
I went to the firefighter training exercise full of my phobias, worried about my sore knee, concerned about my asthma and wondering if I was just plain too old to participate.
I stood four stories up in that tower knowing I could back out, knowing I could turn around and walk back down those stairs.
But I decided to let people help me. Decided to let a team make it possible for me to do something I dreaded.
It wasn’t my victory. It was a team victory.
I learned to let people help me.