Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - April 8, 2011

A day in the life of a firefighter

Fire Ops 101 teaches what it takes to do the job

by Glenn Wohltmann

On any given day, a firefighter could be called on to climb a flights of stairs while carrying more than 50 pounds of equipment, or to ride a ladder up the side of a building to fight a fire in the rain. Later that day, he or she could be called to rescue a driver or passenger trapped in a car after a crash, to crawl inside a burning building to fight a fire, provide first aid, saw through a roof or to rescue an occupant overcome by smoke.

It's not easy work, as a group of people learned firsthand recently. A class called Fire Ops 101, held by firefighters Local 55 in San Leandro, gave about 20 people some hands-on experience about what's required to do the job. The Alameda County Fire Department handles fires for some municipalities, including Dublin and Sunol, along with unincorporated rural areas in the county.

Among those in attendance at Fire Ops 101 were Jennifer Haggerty, a graduate of the Foothill High School's class of 2000, and Cole Halter, a freshman at Valley Christian High School. They were part of a three-member team led by Tony Connell, a battalion chief from Newark.

After a briefing, the class suited up and slogged through the rain to where a couple dozen firefighters gave up their personal time to walk participants through six scenarios and show them just what it takes.

Ventilation

In this scenario, participants had the opportunity to wear firefighting gear and haul it up four flights of stairs, the way firefighters do in a high-rise building fire. They can't use the elevator since it might jam, so they move the load in stages, with a team moving the equipment up several flights at a time to hand it off to another team, carrying extra bottles of air, hoses, axes and everything else that might be needed.

The participants also learned that in fighting a structure fire, ventilation is key to keep the fire from spreading, so holes are quickly sawed through the roof with a chainsaw, with plywood and sheet rock pried out of the way. Firefighters use a tool to thump the roof, making sure it's sound as they work their way up.

Fire attack

Participants donned air packs and masks, then worked their way into a smoke-filled building. In this scenario, they learned about how hoses are deployed, and how firefighters are trained to keep low, crawling as they work their way into a building while others feed hose to them. They also learned that a fire is brought under control by spraying above it before trying to spray the fire itself. This is done in coordination with other firefighters who ventilate the roof from above.

Ideally, every member of the team knows his or her job. With three- or four-person crews, as is currently the case with firefighters in California, the battalion chief is often called away from coordinating the response to help with other jobs, like feeding hose to those inside before a second team arrives.

Search

One of the first things firefighters have to do when they arrive on a scene is determine if there's anyone inside, which can depend on the time of day and whether, for example, it's a business or a home. They're using more and more sophisticated gear, which became apparent to the participants as they began the search scenario, looking for someone trapped in a burning building. Thermal imaging equipment can often tell from the outside if someone is trapped, and the imager can be brought inside during the search to look for a victim's heat signature.

During a search inside a building, firefighters are taught to keep their left hand along one wall to keep them oriented, and to use the imager in their right to stay close to team members, and to watch for obstructions like furniture and wires that may have come down during the fire. In this smoky scenario, participants once again used air masks and new headset radios to help them communicate as they crawled through a home with a thermal imager, looking for a victim.

Often, a thermal imager is not enough, like in cases where a victim may be in bed, under quilts or even hiding in a closet or under a bed, where he or she might not show up; in those cases, firefighters have to do a physical search, checking each room.

Auto extrication

People may question why so many firefighters are required during a car crash, but the participants Saturday learned about the volume of work involved, much of it needing to be done simultaneously. Tires need to be pierced and the vehicle raised on blocks, both to keep it from sliding, say, into a ditch, but also to keep the victim stable. Windows need to be broken with a special punch tool to give access to the victim or victims. If possible, one rescuer gets inside and holds the head of a person trapped inside while others use the Jaws of Life -- air-driven spreaders -- or air-powered cutters to remove a door or, in some cases, even a roof.

Cars currently designed to have crumple zones can be safer, but that can mean more work for rescuers who may have to use their tools to cut away more of a car and lever the dashboard away from a victim. In car crashes, rescue teams operate on the theory of the golden hour and platinum 10 minutes, which mark the optimum time to access a victim, remove him or her from a vehicle, and get that victim stabilized.

Firefighters are now first responders, called out to every injury accident to provide assistance before ambulance companies arrive, and while all firefighters are emergency medical technicians with training in first aid, each team also includes a paramedic who can provide an extra level of medical assistance. Rescue teams have to know how to deal with everything from a single car crash to a rollover to a head-on collision and what tools to use when.

Participants got to literally take a car apart in this scenario, puncturing tires, removing windows, doors and the roof to rescue the victim, a crash dummy.

EMS (Emergency Medical Services)

In this scenario, participants had to rescue a trapped person from inside a partially collapsed building. A search dog was called in to locate victims, and the EMS team then strapped a person onto a bodyboard and carried the person down three flights of steps, although in a real situation, the victim weighs much more than a practice dummy.

Three people bring the victim down the stairs, headfirst, with the person holding the head of the bodyboard giving directions. One member of the team keeps a hand on the back of the person holding the foot side of the board, announcing railings and the number of steps remaining on each flight.

Basic first aid is done at the scene, and the real work begins after the victim is removed. Participants learned how an airway is cleared using a special tool, and what would be done if the victim has a collapsed lung as a result of the building cave in. They also learned about medical equipment carried by rescuers.

Haggerty, who went through a similar exercise two years ago, is looking to become a firefighter; she's been tasking classes locally and has signed up for the Navy, where she'll get firefighter training.

For her, the search scenario left the most lasting impression.

"It's a totally different atmosphere," Haggerty said. "You can't see, so you have to rely on your other senses."

Halter agreed, but especially was impressed with the amount of work the job requires.

"I didn't realize what a fireman went through and how hard the job was," he said.

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