BREWSTER – Within minutes of starting the course, I knew there was way too much to remember.
Brewster Fire Chief Robert Moran invited me to put on an air pack, officially called a self-contained breathing apparatus, and test out the Brewster Fire Department’s recently updated mask-confidence course.
Air masks allow firefighters to breath in toxic or smoke-filled buildings to search for trapped people. The equipment weighs 50 to 60 pounds, including all the tools. And, the turnout gear that saves firefighters from burning is as hot as a snowsuit.
This I knew. But Brewster Firefighter/Paramedic Matt Tucker and Firefighter Bill Kraul then told me an awe-inspiring amount of detail that firefighters must remember in preparation for a huge array of worst-case scenarios.
Given all they must remember, it’s a good thing firefighters are required to take mask-confidence refresher courses annually, Moran said.
Until I donned the mask myself, however, many of the instructions seemed like overkill . For example, I didn’t understand why Kraul told me that when I ran out of air, and knew I would soon lose consciousness, I would need “the fortitude to not rip off the mask.”
“It keeps your airway viable …You want to pass out with that on your face,” he said.
Why would you want to remove a mask in a room of toxic smoke? I was soon to find out.
The mask-confidence course is a loft space in a Brewster Fire Department outbuilding. It resembles a little maze built from particle board. Most adults wearing a fire helmet could not stand up straight in it. At first, the course seemed easy enough to navigate. Certainly Tucker went through it with all the gear and air mask with little trouble. Then, Kraul helped me load the air pack on my back. It weighed about 30 pounds and allowed me about 30 minutes of air. Firefighters must put this on as soon as they step off a truck anytime they respond to a fire, Moran said.
“It’s your backpack when you go to a fire,” Tucker said. You might not need it, but if you do, you don’t want to waste time running back for it, Moran added.
Next, Kraul put the helmet on me. It soon began to feel like a boulder on my shoulders. Last, Kraul gave me a crowbar-like tool, which I was to carry as I crawled through the course to “sound” the floor – that is bang on any new surface before stepping to make sure it wasn’t about to cave in. It was all so heavy that as soon as I got through feeling the walls of the first obstacle (a closet space, because firefighters often get disoriented in dark fire situations and cannot find their way out of closets, Moran said), I was already tired.
Firefighters are trained to go through this course without vision to prepare for the darkness, Kraul said. They learn to feel for their equipment and to use tools such as wire cutters while wearing heavy gloves, he said.
Thankfully, these firefighters didn’t blind me. The downside was that I could see exactly how crawling in all this equipment with a Darth Vader breathing device was exhausting me. My mindset went rapidly from “I don’t want to look clumsy, weak and forgetful in front of these brave young men” to “I don’t’ really care what I look like” to “I just want to lie down.”
As the course reached the end, Kraul gently placed a wall on top of me and asked me to recite the Mayday call, which I couldn’t remember and so yelled, “Whatever!”
And finally, after I had squeezed through a tight tunnel in a military-style elbow crawl, I had my ah-ha moment.
I could see the end of the course. But physically I had already reached my end. Breathing suddenly felt like sucking oxygen through a straw. All I wanted to do was immediately rip off that mask. It’s an anxiety response, Tucker explained, not a claustrophobic feeling exactly, but something equally difficult to ignore. This was when I needed that fortitude to keep the mask on. But in the fortitude-versus-breathing comfortably contest, breathing won hands down.
I never finished the course, though Kraul made me feel better saying I had only used about the same amount of air as Tucker had when he demonstrated it. Panicked, out of shape, and large people extinguish their air more quickly, Tucker said.
I had about 10 minutes of air left, Kraul said. If I had gone through it all, a loud alarm would have started sounding and a team, trained in rapid intervention, would have come in to the burning building and hauled me out, Moran said.
And so, in about 20 minutes, I learned why firefighters do so much training, and are so careful about their equipment maintenance. And, why they are called heroes.
Follow K.C. Myers on Twitter: @kcmyerscct.