Saturday, October 10, 2009

South Pole Firefighter Training

I spent the past week at the Rocky Mountain Fire Academy in Aurora, Colorado training for the South Pole Station Fire Brigade. Apologies for not posting during the week, but you would not believe the stuff I was doing. I was exhausted every day. Every muscle in my body ached all week and I have a new respect for firefighters - the things they do are HARD.

Monday, in just one exercise, we crawled through a "burning" building (simulated smoke but zero visibility) on hands and knees sweep-searching for victims. In this case the scenario was "an infant reported to be in the building". As we discovered there was also an unexpected adult victim. My partner and I had to extract both (we always go in two-person teams). All this was done with 65 lbs of bunker gear, helmet, face-piece and self-contained breathing apparatus. It was all I could do to crawl out of the building with the baby under my arm, hand it (him?) off and collapse. The smoke was so thick in the building that at one point I could not find the open exit door when I was only a foot from it! I shouldn't admit it, but I probably dragged the "baby" out by the neck. Luckily there aren't supposed to be any babies at the Pole, but anything is possible.

And this was just one exercise of a 5-day course. On the last day we all had to sweep-search for victims and put out a fire in a live-fire exercise.  You can see the remnants of the fire in the picture to the left. I cannot say I was looking forward to the search part since searching is hard enough without real fire (putting the fires out is a lot of fun though). In the end all went well in my fire-attack but my sweep-search could have been better. By the way, "could have been better" is a euphemism for "terrible". On the second floor searching for victims I got confused in the smoke and did not search the entire room.  As a result I left the room early and missed the victim (a bright orange traffic cone) which was behind a door.

The one thing I was not worried about was getting burned. On the first day we had been taken into the fire building in full gear while the trainers set fire to a pile of wooden pallets next to us. Thankfully all we had to do was crouch on the floor in the relatively cool air and listen to a short ten-minute lecture.. The lecture they gave in that room took on new meaning when there was a raging fire ten feet away and the smoke/air interface was dropping by the minute. By the end of the lecture the fire had turned into a raging inferno and the smoke had dropped to about 18 inches off the floor and was so dense we couldn't even see the fire ten feet away (but we could sure feel the heat)! We were in full bunker gear and bottled air of course. The firefighters told us that five feet above the floor the temperature was about 1,000 degrees, and if any of us were to stand up the heat would melt our face masks. Needless to say we all crawled out the door on hands and knees after the lecture.. I've learned that firefighters spend most of their time on hands and knees. As we were crawling out another firefighter warned us not to remove our gear for a few minutes because it was too hot to touch!

On one of the non-fire mornings we crawled down the Gerbil Tube - 80 feet of eighteen-inch diameter concrete sewer pipe - to learn how to negotiate tight situations. It was so tight we could only propel ourselves with our toes. Later that day we squirmed, crawled and scooted back and forth and up-and-down through a building called The Maze (which I tended to think of more as the Building from Hell) that had a complex multi-level wooden stud structure built throughout (complete with the occasional hanging electrical wire) to simulate a tight attic space - all in complete darkness with full kit and SCBA. On other days we learned forced-entry techniques using a halligan and ax, practiced extinguishing vehicle-fires (left), propane tank fires, extracting victims from cars, etc. Whew, it was quite a week of exhausting training and the thin air of Denver didn't help much.

And the best part is I was actually paid to do this! I can't say I was the best in the class, but I held my own - particularly when you realize that most of the other students were 20 to 30 years younger than me.  I'd like to take the course again, but I'll prepare myself better in advance next time.

110 days to the Pole!


Fern Emma said...

Thanks for taking time to post all the detail you did in the past two posts. So now you can stop arterial bleeding, splint a broken limb, and rescue a baby (but not a cone) out of a burning building. Am looking forward to the rest of the emergencies to which you will be a proficient responder.

90Below said...

Thanks Fern, I hope I'll never have to respond to another one. From now on they will be real! But all those traffic cones should know they are on their own if they get run over when standing in the middle of the road.

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