At some point or other in my childhood, I wanted to be a firefighter when I grew up. And no wonder really, my dad was the chief of our local fire department for as long as I can remember.
The buzz of his pager going off in the middle of the night was as familiar as the smoke alarm going off to let us know dinner was ready. Riding in firetrucks as Dad swapped the pumpers and engines between fire halls was as common as jumping in our Chevette to go to the arena to watch my brother play hockey.
There were even times the fire hall became a second home.
As a child, it was easy to picture myself in the heavy, tan jacket and pants, hose in hand, battling a raging blaze. It was easy to picture myself the hero, emerging from the smoke-filled building and guiding a panicked child to safety.
It was just like Dad.
Despite my childhood aspirations, I recently had the opportunity to confirm that being a firefighter is not my calling in life.
On Sept. 29, the Sudbury Professional Firefighters Association welcomed a dozen members from various sectors of the city to take part in Fire OPS-101, a day of firefighter training at the Lionel E. Lalonde Centre in Azilda. I was among other local media representatives, city councillors, a politician and city employees who had a basic scraping of the surface of what it actually takes to do the job.
In the eight hours I spent as a "firefighter," I went through a heaping of emotions. I was fascinated, awestruck, inspired and intimidated.
After spending a good chunk of the morning simply learning how to get dressed in the gear and use our SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus), we were ready to take a stab at some of the everyday skills employed by those who have made fighting fires their livelihood. We cut up a vehicle in an auto extrication, forced our way through locked doors, entered a simulated burning kitchen and took time to "cool down" in rehab.
Each of the four teams of rookies had two professional firefighters take us under their wings. Rob Hyndman and Phil Daoust were my team's captains for the day. Not only did they ensure our safety and positively critique our techniques at the various stations, they were endless fountains of knowledge.
As a journalist, I'm curious by nature. But I found myself just quietly listening to and observing the "pros" all day. They answered all the questions I didn't even know I wanted to ask.
Being in the burning building, our vision completely negated by smoke, was probably the most eye-opening aspect of the day. Once firefighters enter a smoke-filled building, their sight is gone. There are times they can tap their face mask and not be able to see their fingers in front of them. They must have confidence in the training they have endured and the equipment they are wearing as they go about their jobs blind.
I held fast to the hose we dragged into the building — it's the only way to find your way out if you become disoriented. And I kept some kind of contact with the firefighter in front of me. As the fire engulfed the stove, crept up the walls and rolled over the ceiling, I tried to focus on controlling my breathing rather than the 250-degree heat that was swallowing me up.
Although the rehab was not an active station, it was one of the most important to build respect. One of the most common causes of firefighter deaths is heart attack. When a firefighter is in a fully engulfed building, dealing with extreme heat, blindness and the knowledge that he only has roughly 20 minutes of clean air on his back, his heart is pounding at a frenzied beat.
As their SCBA run low on oxygen, firefighters are mandated to take a break, to rehydrate and allow their bodies to return to a safe zone before stepping back into battle. So when you see a firefighter sitting on the sidelines while a fire burns nearby, understand that he's there because he has to be, not because he doesn't want to be battling that blaze.
I've always looked up to and admired the fire chief in my life, but I have an even deeper respect for the men and women of this city who put their lives in danger on a daily basis to ensure our safety, now that I've spent a day in their boots.
Laurel Myers is the sports and lifestyle editor for Northern Life.