My partner and I are kneeling on the ground outside of a locked door that’s painted red. We’ve been told that our job is to do a quick sweep of the house that’s on fire. No one knows if anyone was home or not, so it’s our job to go in and find out. We’re crouched there together. We have our air tank regulators in our hands waiting for the word from our lieutenant.
We’re both wearing about seventy pounds of gear. Pants, coats, helmets, air packs, boots, face masks, hoods. Plus we’re each carrying tools. My partner has a charged 2 1/2″ hose. I have an axe.
I’m terrified. I freak out with things on my face. I feel claustrophobic in all my gear (that’s all just a little too big for me). I’m afraid of losing air too quickly. This makes me hold my breath, but then I almost pass out. I’m also afraid of losing my partner. We’ve been taught “two in, two out”. Now we’re going to put that to practice.
“Go.” out lieutenant gives the command and we quickly force entry on the door. We are met by darkness. I cannot see anything. I can only hear. I hear the rustle of my gear. I hear the hiss of air as it comes thru my regulator when I take a breath. I hear my partner’s clothes rustle and I hear him breathing. I feel the hard concrete floor under my knees. I feel my helmet slip forward on my head until it catches on my face mask. I see the lights in my face mask indicating how much air I have in my tank on my back.
We start searching on the delta wall next to the door. As quickly as possible, we make a counter-clockwise search. My partner moves ahead of me, keeping on hand on the wall, one hand on the hose, our lifeline and safety if we meet flames. It also is the quick retreat to the door if we run into trouble.
We move forward. We call out in hopes of hearing another person answering and to keep in contact with each other. I have one hand firmly gripping my partner’s pant leg. At one point I lose my grip and for a few seconds I panic, until I find it again and we continue moving. With my other hand I use the axe handle to sweep out into the middle of the room. I’m looking for chairs, bodies, anything. I find a chair, call out to my partner, and we pause momentarily as I search it. It’s empty so we keep moving. We round the corner onto the Charlie wall. As we move along the wall, it happens…the thing I’ve been dreading the most, a roof collapse.
I hear a crash and suddenly feel a large weight pressing on my back, pinning me to the ground. I check out my situation. I am pinned. I can move my toes in my boots and can move my arms a little, but other than that I am stuck. I have lost my partner’s pant leg but I can hear him near me. He’s using his radio to call a mayday. As soon as I hear his PASS device go off, I trigger mine. The shrill alarms fill the air. And I lay there and wait. I have no choice. I’m stuck. As I’m lying there I realize something is cutting into my air hose and is making it difficult for me to get a breath.
So there I am. I cannot move. At times I cannot get a breath. I’m terrified. I have panicked myself so much I am on the verge of passing out. I talk myself out of completely freaking out by telling myself that the rescue team (RIT) will be there soon. All they have to do is follow the hose and they will find us.
Then I hear more noises. New noises. It’s the RIT team! Soon I feel a hand on my boot. Oh my foot must be out of the debris. A familiar voice tells me to shut off my PASS device if I can. I do. Within short order, I feel the debris taken off of me and I am freed. I roll over and sit up. I feel Tod’s hand on my shoulder.
He shakes me and asks if I’m ok. I nod my head. Then realize he can’t see me so I say yes. I’m still terrified. I’m sitting on the floor and I can hear the team getting ready to follow the hose back out. When I realize that they are all on their hands and knees and are about to leave! All I can picture in my head is that they are going to leave me behind! I start to full on panic. My brain tells me to rip off my mask and helmet so I can see and figure out how to get out. Then my training kicks in and says, “Don’t you dare! You are in an IDLH (Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health) atmosphere! To rip off your mask now means certain death!” so I sit there, freaking out, my hands next to my mask, trying not to suck down air.
All of a sudden I hear the lieutenant’s voice. “Stop the drill!” Everything stops and soon I feel hands removing my helmet and mask. I can see! I look up into the lieutenant’s face and almost immediately start calming down. He asks what was going on and I voice what I was feeling. We talk about it and discuss how to prevent that feeling in the future.
Tod makes sure to check in with me multiple times as we then proceed to finish the drill. That made me breathe better.
That was a drill. During fire academy. It was one of the many times during the academy that I felt terrified and almost had a panic attack. But that day just as on all the others I was not mocked for it. We always discussed it and I was always encouraged to keep on going. So many times I threatened to drop out and quit. Every time my academy mates, Simeon and Tod, tell me that if I do they will come to my house and drag me to class. It makes me laugh and I continue to come. Week after week.
Then comes the final hands-on experience before our final test. Our first live fire.
The day comes and it is time for us to make entry in a building that is actually in fire. Once again I’m scared spitless. But I remember that when I voiced my fears to other members of the fire department, they in turn voiced their confidence that I would do just fine. I wasn’t so sure, but their confidence in me boosted my confidence in myself.
Then came the actual moment. I was on the nozzle and was first in the door. The first time I was terrified and felt like I performed terribly. My lieutenant had to actually take over and direct the nozzle where it was supposed to go. Why? I was so scared to see flames above me that I closed my eyes. Even tho it was a controlled building with an emergency shut off and there was basically nothing that could go wrong I was terrified of fire.
The second time in I dared to open my eyes and tried to do my best to please my lieutenant. It wasn’t as scary as I expected it to be!
The third time something inside of me snapped. The fear broke. I stared at the flames and laughed. I was a firefighter! I had a hose with hundreds of gallons of water! I was a girl! I had the support of dozens of other firefighters! I could do this! With that determination, I began to have fun and stubbornly aimed my hose at the flames on the ceiling and chased them back across the ceiling and down the wall back inside the stove prop. I won! With the help of my lieutenant and my partner backing me. With the support of an entire fire station. I faced my fears and won. It was one of the most incredible feelings in my life.
Fire academy was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. It is also one of my most favorite memories to look back on even tho I decided to not finish my firefighter training. I learned a lot. I grew a lot. I faced a lot of my fears in those four short months. I do not regret doing the training. One of the best experiences ever in my life.