The dangers of the firefighting profession make the lives of the Alameda County Fire Department like no other. They require an athleticism, stamina and trust in one another that inspire a civilian to be braver and even reciprocate this service. This is more evident than ever after experiencing their Fire Ops 101 at the ACFD San Leandro training center. An event hosted by the ACFFA Local 55 intended to expose elected officials and journalists to the heat that firefighters face daily.
Invited participants spent a challenging day donning full firefighting gear for hands-on simulations including the burn trailer, the aerial ladder, cutting roof top ventilation, breaking through steel doors, auto accident rescues, high-rise rescues and wilderness fires. Survivors of the event were treated to a barbeque suitable for the profession it is legendary for.
Invited civic leaders and media arrived at the training facility promptly at 8:00 a.m. for the 6 hour event. Each participant had signed a waiver prior releasing the department from liability from injury (even death!). They were all in great hands though and, unlike in real life, trained in a controlled situation.
Participants were each provided a large canvas bag of gear including boots, firefighting pants, suspenders, a heavy reflective jacket and helmet. Donning the canvas jacket and heavily insulated pants causes one to immediately begin dripping with sweat if not from the insulation and sunny weather conditions, then the lugging of weight while trying to function.
The Burn Trailer
Firefighters got right to work taking each participant inside of “the burn trailer”, a dark cavern the size of an RV. Each participant is outfitted with an oxygen mask and cumbersome tank strapped to their back. The tank contains enough oxygen to breath for about 30 minutes under “ideal” conditions and as few as 15 under more taxing circumstances. While it may save a firefighters life, all that gear makes one claustrophobic if not exhausted. Yet firefighters keep it on at all times. The firemen let the participant acclimate to the breathing apparatus with the mask on then flip on the oxygen intake before entering.
Fires burns so hot that to survive, one must stay low where it’s more bearable and smoke inhalation can be mitigated. Participants are instructed to kneel and gradually scoot inches at a time working as a team to support the heavy canvas hose. The participant works right up front where the action is, operating the nozzle, having the presence of mind to adjust the flow and aim as the flames shoot up the back wall and overhead along the ceiling.
After completing the burn trailer, participants were ushered to the Aerial fire ladder that extends 110 feet into the sky. The top appeared to touch the clouds with each successive ladder segment narrowing. Firemen at the base clamp a safety rope to the participants but in real situations the firefighters, in their heavy gear, have none. The conditions that day were ideal with just a light breeze but one can only imagine what real wind and the mayhem of a fire or a storm would feel like. Those who fear heights are advised to look straight ahead at the rung in front them rather than looking up … or down.
The Roof Top
Firefighters use ladders to climb onto roofs of burning buildings with the unseen threat of collapse from underneath. They bang on the roof with an axe or pick to listen for distinctions in sound and so determine where to carve a hole to assist ventilation of smoke. They sound out a square than chainsaw a hole to clear the burning area for the firefighters inside to work. The Fire Ops participants were assisted by a wooden incline on a one-story building but one can only imagine being faced with taller buildings and steeper roof inclines.
As first responders, Firefighters along with paramedics are called upon to rescue victims of auto collisions. It is one of the most dangerous situations firefighters face. Rescuers wear goggles and must put on rubber gloves beneath their canvas gloves to protect from both chemical and human liquids. Emeryville’s stations are often first responders to accidents at the MacArthur maze such as the recent Diesel Fire.
Participants are directed to a vehicle which requires having its door pried off. The big hardware come out, including the spreaders or “jaws of life” as they are commonly called. Additional tools are used to help free tangled limbs and break windows to better access the victims.
Firefighters then helped participants load the “Rescue Randy” simulaids manikin into a stretcher and administer CPR and other emergency lifesaving methods. This simulation is of course administered without the threat of explosions, speeding cars and panicked or even deceased victims.
High Angle Rope Rescue
13 year veteran Firefighter Brian Ferreira led the rope rescue drill performed on the exterior wall of a tower. This particular incident involved no threat of fire … but also no safety net. This exercise is particularly applicable to Emeryville with its ample multi-story buildings. The rescuer is turned almost upside down as he secured the window-washer mannequin by buckling it into a rescue harness. Rescuers on the roof then lower the two to the ground with the rescue climber holding the mannequin below him as he descends. The mannequin, it is noted, does not flail or panic as a real rescue victim might.
[youtube id=”ddYr7GzDPr0″ width=”620″ height=”360″]
The sound of a wilderness fires is described as similar to a freight train. The conditions are often so loud, it’s hard for firefighters to communicate and they must stay within voice range. In the event that a fire surrounds them, they rely on emergency survival tactics. The backpacks they adorn contain a sort of tent or cocoon which the trapped firefighter will pull over himself. He will lay on dirt cleared of dry grass or other flammables with his shovel, after ballooning the tent fabric with air to keep the fabric off his skin as the fire passes over. Teams of firefighters in the wilderness perform a progressive hose lay to access fire. The hoses have been coiled in their backpacks and will be assembled in the field.
Participants treated to another time-honored FD tradition – BBQ!
It was an exhausting day for those that participated in all or most of the drills and worked up an appetite worthy of an actual firefighter. The professional grill setup produced a menu consisted of Tri-Tip, BBQ chicken and a plethora of sides including BBQ beans.
Participants are alerted to the job hazards and plight of their profession that include higher incidents of cancer, neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, short careers (retirement age is 57) and shorter lifespans. Advocating for an earlier retirement is one of the highest priorities of the ACFFA Local 55.
The firefighters topped off the day with the bestowal of bragging rights in the form of fire department red t-shirts commemorating survival of Fire Ops 101; and an official mug. Cheers to our Alameda County Fire Department!
A promotional video of the event from 2014 can be viewed in the feature area of this post. More photos from the event can be viewed under the Instagram Hashtag #AlcoFireOps101. The edited video below shows some of the highlights of that days event.