I was invited to attend FireOps101 at the Ohio Fire Academy, an experience OAPFF (Ohio Assoc. of Professional Fire Fighters) offers for, who they identify as, “Decision Makers.” I was very excited to be invited and to attend. While I’m not a”decision maker” in the intended sense of the word, I did decide to commit my professional services to first responders and the day offered an opportunity to actually “walk a mile” in my clients’ shoes. You know when the dentist tells you, “This may hurt a little” and you say “Ok” but then you realize when it does start hurting, you really had no idea what he meant by “hurt?” This was a bit of my day. It started out, as the photo shows above, getting sized for my turnout gear and getting my vitals taken. The group was buzzing with anticipation. We were getting to play fire fighter for the day. We got pastries! How exciting! And then we got down to work.
My first activity, the “Search and Rescue” simulation, I learned just how difficult it can be in a smoke-filled home, looking for someone, keeping your fellow fire fighter safe, and crawling on one knee and extending one leg (the proper but most unnatural position), all while wearing the above gear that doesn’t offer much give. I went on through the day to climb a 75 foot ladder, where I got about 10 feet from the top and told my instructor that I was perfectly fine where I was and didn’t see any point in going further, I did a simulated auto accident extrication and nearly lost feeling in my arms due to the numbing brought on by the vibration of the equipment used, and I participated in a live fire where I got a taste of how easy it can be to panic.
I could tell detailed stories of each simulation, and let me tell you, they’re good. But I want to focus on on experience in particular. It was the very start of the day. Before the smoke was released for the Search and Rescue, we were able to cheat and walk through to see the layout. This is not typical of course, fire fighters don’t get grand tours before the fire ignites. But me in my gear, in a controlled environment, strolled through the house, looking around, not sure what to pay attention to and what to dismiss. But when we arrived at a back bedroom, I saw the room set up and my heart sank. My mouth opened. “Oh shit” came out. The furniture was set up in a way that had been described to me by a fire service friend who shared 2 fatal fire stories and his experience. Both times a child’s room was set up as this room was. And his experience led to a remembered sensation in his hands, that allowed him to make a different decision at the second fire and lives were saved.
Now, I’ve heard this story only. I wasn’t present. This isn’t a client who I’ve worked through this trauma with. It was simply story telling between friends. And me, not a participant of the fire, just seeing that set up had an emotional and physical reaction. A reaction to bunk beds. That was it. Two beds stacked, pushed up against a window. I was astounded at how the stories had impacted me. How deeply ingrained these experiences had become in me. It increased my understanding tenfold that day. And it’s now a grounding point for me, that feeling I held in my body when I walked in that room. It makes my work sacred. It helps me keep my perspective when I move in this culture of fire service and first responders.
I will likely never change professions, so I will never truly “get it.” And this experience reminds me daily of what obstacles there are to overcome. Bad runs, fatalities, politics, pay, all of it. And it comes back to how it all stays in the body. The day I was given the opportunity to play fire fighter solidified my commitment to this work.