February 1, 2010:
They turned the schedule around on us again today….the Fourth Quarter Practical – originally scheduled for tomorrow – is being held later TODAY! My stomach started churning in anticipation of that “last biggest” hurdle as Mr. Vrona began the morning lecture……
Mr. Vrona had attended a presentation by Mr. David Dodson this weekend on the art of “Reading Smoke.” Reading smoke is about predicting where the fire will be burning NEXT based on the smoke’s color, volume, turbulence, and other characteristics. Mr. Dodson is a 25 year fire service veteran and nationally-recognized expert on the fire service, structural firefighting, and building size up.
Mr. Vrona recapped some of the surprising new information coming from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) regarding the chemical composition of the smoke generated by burning building materials and contents. The smoke that firefighters are exposed to is DEADLY and FUEL LADEN! NIST analyzed the chemical composition of the smoke produced in typical “room and contents” fires – fires burning in the wood frame construction found in the typical home, and the materials used to furnish and decorate most households. The number one chemical found IN THE SMOKE was #2 Fuel Oil! Smoke really is fuel! The Dodson lecture tied the NIST results with flashover and fire growth statistics, surmising that the fuel oil content in smoke may account for the reason that there’s been a 38% increase in firefighters being caught in flashover conditions, and the reasons that fires are now doubling in size every few seconds instead of every few minutes.
Paychecks, city maps, and Chief Morehead’s “Firehouse Recipe Book” were also passed out this morning – the last two items were in preparation for our first couple of days on the job “out in the field.”
I had to leave training this morning to attend a meeting downtown, and upon my return I found that I was the last one who needed to take the Fourth Quarter Practical Exam, and the second-to-the-last guy was taking it when I arrived back at training! A surge of adrenaline pumped through me as I quickly donned my turnouts and air pack and hustled out to the base of the drill tower. Standing at the rear bumper of the engine – the “starting line” for the Practical – I was literally shaking with nervous energy. THIS is the test I had been dreading! In my mind, THIS was the “final exam”….the final hurdle to be overcome…..the remaining big obstacle between me and graduation! By comparison (in my mind), the final written exam would be a breeze….
I had completed one practice run through of this exam last Tuesday in 7 minute, 38 seconds. Maximum allowable time was 8 minutes….not a lot of time to mess around with a bungled knot, redo cross threaded couplings, or fumble with donning the mask….The words that I dreaded seemed to come in slow motion from Captain Deno’s mouth as he poised next to me with the stopwatch….”Anytime you’re ready; your time starts when your hand touches the hose…..”
My hand touched the hose! I sped towards the hydrant with the four inch hose and hydrant wrench….made the connection smoothly….turned on the hydrant 10 full turns….turned on the main valve of my air tank as I quickly walked to the ladder….raised and lowered the ladder….donned my face piece and went on air….carried the hose bundle to the third floor of the tower….connected the gated “Y” and high rise bundle to the standpipe….picked up the box fan and fast-walked to the fifth floor…..plugged in and turned on the fan….hauled the icy bundle of hose up the side of the building with the rope – from the ground to the fifth floor window and back down to the ground again…ran down the stairs to the third floor….picked up the hose bundle and ran down to the ground level….dropped the bundle and scooted over to the pike pole and rope….the rope was like an ice-coated eel in my gloved hands, but I managed to quickly tie a clove hitch, safety knot, and two half hitches around the pike and ready it for lifting….and then I stepped over to the Keiser Sled, picked up the sledgehammer, and sucked in a big breath of air before starting the final station of the exam: driving that heavy steel sled for five lung-busting, forearm-killing, hand-numbing, heart-breaking feet to finish line!!!!!!!!
I drove the Keiser sled the five feet and was sucking hard on the air tank when Captain Deno shouted “STOP!!!!” I let go of the hammer, and both the hammer and I stood swaying in mid-air as I straddled the Keiser machine and waited for the verdict....I had done well....let’s see what the official results indicated...... The air was silent as Captain Deno approached me with the stopwatch held to my eye level so I could see my results….6 minutes, 33 seconds!!!!!!! YES!!
I never would have thought it was possible for me to shave off a minute from my previous time! I had passed, and with a very respectable time! Later, while taking off my turnout gear I heard that ALL of us had passed the Final Practical! All 21 of us….poised for the final hurdle tomorrow….the final written exam…..but it could not be as challenging to me as today’s test! I went home happy and relieved!
That happiness and relief lasted about 2 hours….
I was called to a two-alarm fire on Sloan Avenue in the early evening. The fire in a two-story, 8-unit apartment building claimed the life of a 49 year old man. Saint Paul Firefighters did a tremendous job of stopping the fire in the apartment of origin, safely evacuating all remaining residents, and saving the other seven units in the building. But seeing the grieving family members gathered in the parking garage stole any sense of satisfaction at doing a good job “on the fire.” My sincere condolences go out to Mr. Yang’s family and friends, and to all who have suffered the tragedy of losing a loved one as a result of fire.
I arrived home from Sloan Avenue in time for the 10:00 PM news, but I chose not to watch it. Why watch the TV reports when you’ve see the tragedy and sadness first hand? My triumph from this afternoon’s test had vanished…my focus on the academy paling against the reality of life in the real world of blacken apartment rooms and sobbing families….
I skipped studying tonight, trading test preparation time for sleep, and climbed into bed tired, cold, and sad.