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Meeting the Enemy: Rookie volunteers face smoke and flames in live-fire exercise

Most of us rookies at the Saturna Island Volunteer Fire Department in British Columbia were nervous about going for live fire training in April. Experienced members of the department had been through it and much higher level courses and they told us to expect sore knees and soaked turnout gear.

December 6, 2007
By Bill Schermbrucker

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Most of us rookies at the Saturna Island Volunteer Fire Department in British Columbia were nervous about going for live fire training in April. Experienced members of the department had been through it and much higher level courses and they told us to expect sore knees and soaked turnout gear.

Chief John Wiznuk had run us through simulations at extra Tuesday night practices, so we knew conceptually what to expect: in a team of four, one member controls the water supply; one is the team leader who gives the orders and maintains radio communication with the incident commander; two members take the hose in, one with the nozzle, the other with break-in tools. In our simulations, we had dragged charged water lines up to the door of our fire hall office, checked it for heat and sprayed it down with a short burst. Low and to one side, we cracked the door and shouted in for victims, then crawled in and pretended to see the flames over by the computer and confine them with a couple of quick nozzle streams. Then, with wider spray bursts, we cooled the ceiling, taking care not to bring the heat level too low, then pretended to break a window for the all-important venting. Once the imagined hot, black smoke vented so that the danger of rollover or flashback was reduced, we "put the wet on the red" to knock the flames down completely and crawled in and around doing our primary and secondary victim searches, then came out of the building, all the while keeping in radio contact and checking the location of the other team members.

"Communication!" Wiznuk told us. "Stay in communication with the incident commander and in sight of one another at all times." We knew that and we knew our list of priorities: personal safety; team safety; department safety; victim retrieval; property protection. But knowing is different from doing it live.

Waiting for the ferry to head for Nanaimo, where the training centre is located, I ate lunch in the Saturna pub with two other rookies and listened to an experienced department member predict that we would be taken into a small room where a big fire would be lit and shown the thermal layer building downward. For the first time, I experienced a twinge of visceral fear: we were going to be enclosed with fire in order to feel and see its danger and learn how to beat it without getting burned or worse.

The Nanaimo fire-training ground is an open yard of about a hectare, with a few wrecked cars towed in and dumped for firefighter practice, and – what became our focus of attention – a four-storey concrete burn tower with a complex layout of rooms inside and various steel doors, windows and balconies, all smoke-blackened.

We signed and witnessed one another's waiver forms and sat in a trailer full of gear as Ken Ruddick, the administrator and co-owner, with his wife, Ruth of Emergency Response Team Training Inc., or ERT, spent the first hour on orientation. I realized this was a serious requirement for our safety and ERT's legal liability but the mood was jocular, as rookies Cassie Hull, Jerry Pavlatos and Lester Bomford responded to Ken's mild ribbing.

The real message though, was camaraderie and trust: we were here to learn from the three instructors, Dennis High, Jamie Svendsen and Cam Ferguson, who were not here to beat up on us for our errors but to demonstrate what to do, allow us to try and to make our inevitable mistakes and then do it over, again and again until, by the end of the day, there might be discernible progress. We were left in the capable hands of the instructors plus Kevin Olafsen, the hard-working air tank refiller.

There were eight of us from Saturna, the three already mentioned plus Darryl Davies, Jenn Nilsen, Kevin O'Hara, Steve Dunsmuir and me. There was an experienced firefighter from South Cowichan there for a refresher. The normal class would be four teams of three, but with only nine today, Dennis High split us into three twos and a three. He told us he would act as the incident commander and a laminated tactical scenario card showed how our teams would rotate: rapid intervention team with leader (to size up the situation and report smoke location and type, and potential means of venting and egress to the incident commander); attack team one; attack team two; rescue and rehabilitation team.

We began donning our turnout gear and the instructors moved among us like backstage theatre costume hands, checking that we were done up for maximum protection, especially around the head: helmets with crown strap assembly, ratchet headband, PBI/Kevlar ear and neck protector with Velcro and a chin strap with (hopefully) quick-release buckle, all of which needed to be properly fitted to shield us as much as possible from naked flame, super-heated air and steam. We helped one another buckle the 14-kilogram air tank assemblies for our SCBAs on our backs, put the mask assemblies on our faces and kept adjusting things till we achieved tight fits and good air flow. Already we were sweating.

Then we filed into a dark concrete burn room. We were instructed to spread out and drop to one knee to experience the buildup and descent of a thermal layer of superheated gases and we watched while a pile of tinder-dry wooden pallets was ignited with a propane flame thrower. This was what Robert Montgomery, our experienced member, had described earlier in the Saturna pub. I felt the beginning of a panic attack as the steel doors clanged shut, bright orange and red flames illuminated the concrete room and – most threatening of all – that cloud of hot, black, sooty air kept building up and pushing lower towards us from the ceiling. "Open a door!" I wanted to yell into the muffling outflow of my SCBA, but Dennis, the instructor, signalled that we should take off one of our flame-resistant gloves and carefully lift a bare hand to feel the descending thermal layer.

That was the moment when I met the enemy. I've been in the Saturna VFD for a year and a half and have attended many practices, some courses, a number of fire calls, a gas emergency, several storm-blocked roads with live power lines down and quite a few medical first responder pages, but none of that comes close to this experience: you put your hand gingerly up into the superheated layers of uncombusted black smoke and realize what black smoke is – not just that familiar telltale evidence of something burning, it's a cloud of unburned fuel particles waiting to burst into rollover, flashover or backdraft. In fact, my foolish instinct to call for a door to be opened might well have produced just such a fatal catastrophe by feeding fresh oxygen to the starved hot layers.

Dennis had told us that any time we were uncomfortable with our situation we should let an instructor know. I'm sure he meant this at some level, but the trick in a VFD is to know at what level the bar of discomfort is set. A fire department has a different kind of reality than the academic world where I've spent my working life. Yeah, yeah, volunteer firefighters do discuss stuff and ask questions and the chief is always diligently warning us not to take risks but most of the time we suck up discomfort and just do what's needed.

At that moment, we needed to reverse our animal instinct to flee from fire and instead learn how to go to it. Having met the enemy, we started to practise the techniques for knocking it out. Some people managed to connect their SCBAs smoothly without removing their gloves but not me. And each time I took off a glove I felt slow and exposed and hastened to locate, rotate and click the air connector onto the front of the face mask, usually with a buddy's help and get my protection back in place.

On into the building in our allotted team roles. Over the course of the day, that descending thermal layer of black uncombusted smoke and its parent, the dragon flame, became like living entities, malevolent and dangerous, and we had to conquer them. On one occasion, spraying too much water upwards to the ceiling, I caused a sudden thermal descent and saw my teammate, Jerry Pavlatos, drop to the floor to escape the burning steam, which now fogged our masks completely, leaving us in darkness. We sometimes had to crouch down or lie flat beneath the smoke to see where the flames were, in order to knock them down, and I felt the weariness in my knees. As we rotated through the scenarios, which the instructors made a bit more difficult each time, we sweated profusely, and when we had short breaks between rotations for evaluation and debriefing, we took off our helmets, masks and jackets and laid our SCBAs carefully on the grass or the hoods of derelict cars. At one point, I wrenched off my sodden t-shirt and wrung the sweat out of it.

People on Saturna have asked me how the course was, and I've replied, "It was a metaphysical experience." Why "meta," I ask myself now, it was physical, man! But rescuing "Wilson," the dummy victim, which was dressed like us in turnout gear, made it a definite brush with death and the whole experience was spiritual in that it bonded us as a team even more than we already were. To face a hot and fatal threat repeatedly, while learning techniques to oppose and knock it down, along with your fellow firefighters, is a visceral, tribal experience. It removes social, gender and age difference and makes us one proud group.

Now we rookies are a little better prepared to fight the enemy.

Bill Schermbrucker is an instructor emeritus of Capilano College, and president of the Saturna Recycling Society. His novel Mimosa won the Ethel Wilson Book Prize.


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