DAY 49 - THE SHERBURNE AVENUE SMOKEHOUSE

January 22, 2010:

This morning the class quickly hustled through a 65-question written test covering 5 textbook chapters and 17 Department SOPs. I aced the exam – my first perfect score on a written exam in over a month....
 
Following the exam, Father Dan Conlin, our Fire Department Chaplain (radio call sign, “Angel One”) presented a short introduction on his background, duties, and the support he provides to firefighters and their families. Father Conlin is a volunteer chaplain for the Department: he is not paid, and he provides chaplaincy services to us when he’s available from his “regular” job as a Catholic priest serving in the Archdiocese office of marriage services. He’s a wonderful humanitarian and a quiet, friendly man. Father Conlin stressed to our class the importance of serving humanity and remembering our own human nature: “We can only do our jobs well if we understand our humanity well.” I was impressed that Father monitors the fire radio system on a very frequent basis, and often joins the fire crews in the stations for a meal and quiet discussions.
 
After Father Conlin departed, our class changed into our PT gear and loaded up the reserve engines and Police vans with equipment for our practical evolutions: search and rescue practice at a “donated structure” on Sherburne Avenue in Saint Paul. The structure – donated by the HRA – was a two-story, wood frame “four-plex:” 2 apartments on the ground floor with a shared stairway between them leading the 2 more apartments upstairs. The building had a front porch (on Side A – the address side of the house) and a large balcony on the second floor on the back of the house (Side C). Chain link fences ran between the house and the adjacent properties on the side, leaving about 4-5 feet of clearance for laddering the second floor windows on Sides B and D (the “left” and “right” sides of the house, respectively). (Firefighters use this “Side A, B, C, and D designation to standardize geographical orientation of buildings in our mental maps of the property).
 
The class again divided into teams of 4, and assumed the roles of various fire crews operating on the scene: primary attack, back up attack, ventilation team, search and rescue team, and ignition/safety team. The building was vacant, with some scattered furnishings. The ignition team lit several smoldering fires in barrels inside the building, which produced a thick, brown glut of smoke....you could not see more than a couple of feet inside the buildings. There were no “fires” to fight today; the primary goal was to practice quickly and efficiently getting off the vehicles, “flaking hose” (pulling it off the trucks and laying it out on the sidewalk and front yard so it doesn’t kink when it is charged with water) to make a quick entry into the house, and use the hose lines to assist in search orientation while inside the house (the hose can lead us back to the front door). 
 
Teams repeatedly conducted searches inside the building, and practiced rescuing “hose dummies” from the building. (Hose dummies are humanoid figures constructed from old fire hose. They are the size and weight of an adult human, are more “lifelike” and flexible than plastic mannequins, and are less expensive than commercially available dummies or mannequins).
 
We ran four or five evolutions throughout the rest of the morning and afternoon (we had a short brown bag lunch at Station 18). The evolutions allowed us to gain additional experience and confidence, and gave us an opportunity to really practice “air management” – carefully monitoring our rate of breathing and the remaining air level in our tank. It is critical to begin exiting the building while you still have plenty of air in your tank – far too many firefighters have died or become injured because they waited too long before starting to exit, then got disoriented on the way out of the structure, and run out of air.
 
After the last evolution, Captain Deno brought all of us into the smoky structure and had us sit down in one of the large rooms. We couldn’t see beyond 4 feet or so due to the thick smoke. Then, Captain Deno opened a back door or window on the house, while Mr. Vrona started a gas-powered fan on the front porch. The fan created “positive pressure ventilation” – pushing air into the house, creating an over-pressurized situation. The smoke and fumes inside the building quickly found the exit opening on the back side of the house, and in just a minute or two the visibility inside the house improved dramatically. It was a graphic demonstration of the benefits of positive pressure ventilation!
 
The day was warm – about 34 degrees - and the melting snow and slush made footing treacherous around the vehicles. Wet gloves were a constant factor. Although each evolution was fairly short in duration, we reset the gear and “loaded hose” on the engines between each evolution, so it was a long day of training. After nearly 5 hours in our air packs, by lower back was aching, and I was ready for a warm shower and a short, 2-day weekend. 
 
At the end of the day, we loaded up our gear and wearily climbed into the rigs for the short run back to the Training Center. We unloaded the gear and brought it inside so it wouldn’t freeze over the weekend. My classmates invited me to stop for some refreshments on the way home, but I wanted to give them their space and a chance to decompress without me. I opted for the solitude of the car and the short trip home to see “The Commissioner” and the rest of my family. Week 11 was over, and I was bushed.....Tomorrow (Saturday) I would join several members of the Department’s “Climb for a Cure” team, and climb 50 stories of stairs in the IDS tower in Minneapolis in preparation for a fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Tomorrow was just a practice climb or two; the actual “Climb” is scheduled for February 6th – the day after our academy class graduation.
 
That wraps up Week 11 of the Saint Paul Fire Academy!  Just 9 training days left until graduation. In that short time we’ll have more live fire training, a final written test, the Fourth Quarter Practical Exam, and the Minnesota State Firefighter II written and practical tests. So, it’ll be an action-packed time over the next two weeks – much of it “on the farm” instead of in “Pair-ee,” but the end is in sight!
 
Thanks for joining me “on scene” at the Sherburne Avenue Smokehouse Evolutions!
 
Tim

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