Day 40, January 8, 2010:
I’m crawling down a narrow tunnel – 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall – searching for a way out….out to sunshine….out to air! I was wearing full turn out gear and SCBA, and “on air,” and was carrying an axe and a radio. It was dark and an loud audible alarm was shrilly reminding me that I was in an alien place – a place humans should not be going….I had already crawled through a 6 foot long, 18 inch diameter tunnel, dropped through a oval shaped scuttle in the floor that I never believed I could actually fit through, and somehow had managed to contort myself up through another scuttle that was partially blocked with debris. At one point I had removed my air tank and helmet, and slithered under a steel gate that left me only 12 inches of space underneath to crawl through, but I got through only to find that tunnel blocked as well. So, shimmying back through that 12 inch tall tunnel restriction, I pushed my air pack, helmet, radio, and axe and continued to look for a way to escape….I was out of options…..out of time….out of air! My low air alarm bell had been ringing for a couple of minutes now, and was slowing its cadence…slower…..slower….clicking now – not enough air to make it ring….just clicking…..clicking…..STOP!
I was experiencing the inside of the Hennepin Technical College SCBA Maze Trailer. Our class had been in this trailer before in an orientation session for our air packs. This time, the interior layout had been altered and the object was to find your way to the outside. It was a simulation for a situation where we might become separated from our fire crew and did not have the benefit of being able to follow a hose line out to safety. We had to find our way out before we ran out of air. I didn’t make it because of a deadly assumption…..
There! I found the door leading out to the icy air outside! I pulled on the handle….it wouldn’t open! I pushed on the door….it still wouldn’t open! I KNEW it was the way out, but the door must be locked! There must be ANOTHER way out! Back into the maze to search for an alternate exit…..!
That was 8 minutes into the exercise – when I still had plenty of air. The door had not been locked. The door had a long, vertical handle, and I had assumed in the dark tunnel – surrounded by the piecing alarm – and hot and tired, that the door was locked. It never occurred to me that a vertical door handle would TURN to unlatch the door. Silly of me….and deadly! I had pushed on the door and pulled on the door, but I didn’t realize that the vertical handled on the door TWISTED – and would have let me out! I “died” in the SCBA maze because I didn’t THINK! Instead of finding my way out in 8 minutes, I crawled around inside the 40 foot by 8 foot maze (three levels of tunnels) for another 24 minutes before being “rescued” by the instructor, who called me back to the locked door and showed me the way to the outside world. I had run out of air at 27 minutes, was disappointed, and very hot inside my turnouts. But, I will never make THAT mistake again! The fireman’s admonition “Try before you pry” was good advice - in my case, “Try before you die!”
The SCBA maze exercise was a great learning experience, and I was actually pretty satisfied with how things went…..I had maintained pretty good air management throughout the search, was orientated throughout the exercise, and never panicked. I kept track of all my equipment and crawled through some spaces that the instructor told me later were not supposed to be POSSIBLE to crawl through. So, it was a successful training evolution in many ways. I’m glad I learned some great lessons today in the controlled environment of a static prop, and not out of the fire ground somewhere!