December 24, 2009 – Day 31
This morning, we dug out from a 6 inch overnight snowfall. My fellow recruits and I showed up early to class and began shoveling out the sidewalks and stairs for the various buildings at the Training Facility. This mirrors the work down out at the Saint Paul Fire stations, where on-duty firefighters have to clear ice and snow from the station aprons, sidewalks, and parking areas following each winter snowstorm. My classmates and I completed this work, then began our daily “station clean ups” of vacuuming and cleaning the classrooms and other areas of the Training Facility.
Today’s morning classroom and afternoon practical sessions focused on a primary function of firefighting: Search and Rescue. “Search” involves looking for people and pets that are inside a burning building or hazardous environment, while “Rescue” involves assisting them in actually getting out of the dangerous area. It is a function that begins when we arrive on the scene of an emergency, and oftentimes takes place while – or even before – we are fighting the actual fire. Searching “in front” (or above) the advancing hose line is one of the most dangerous aspects of the job. The hose line (and the water it carries) provides a measure of safety for the attack crew – the water provides a means of protecting themselves from the fire, and the hose line itself can lead them out of the structure if they become disorientated in the smoky conditions. Search and rescue crews often have to perform their work in front of the hose team, or above the floor where a hose team is working. It is extremely hazardous and extremely exhausting work!
Our instructor today was Firefighter Derek Peterson, from Saint Paul Rescue Squad 3. Like so many of the instructors we’ve been blessed to have during this academy, he is a master at teaching his specialty – and Derek has a wealth of specialties! He’s a talented instructor, an expert in technical rescue operations, and a tough and experienced firefighter. What I didn’t know about Derek until today is that he is also a paramedic! He can do it all, and he “brought it all” to class with him today! He has an easy-going instructional style, but he pulls no punches in “telling it like it is.” He’s tough, authentic, and talented!
His morning lecture covered search and rescue patterns and techniques, the mental and physical aspects of search and rescue, pet rescues, dealing with families, firefighter survival, and the history behind various rescue maneuvers and exercises. He also provided an excellent opportunity for my classmates to hear first hand about “life in the station” – the schedule, the personalities, the routine chores, and the pitfalls to avoid as a newly-graduated firefighter. These insights into “what it will be like out there” are one of the most educational and enjoyable aspects of having “guest” instructors come into class – that and the fact that each are chosen for their demonstrated expertise!
In the afternoon we conducted search and rescue operations in the burn building: full turn out gear and SCBAs in place, “on air” (breathing from our tanks), and facemasks covered so we cannot see, we went into the building in teams of three to search for “fire victims” – manikins placed in various rooms throughout the building. My team found the victim on each entry, and crawled around in the basement, the main floor, and the second floor of the building on 3 separate searches. It was tiring work. There was a considerable “mental” aspect to the work as well. One of the keys to conducting search and rescue is to maintain your orientation inside the building so you can find your way out again when you cannot see. “Drawing a mental map” of the building as you search is critical to safe and successful searching, and using your other senses (touch and hearing) requires some intense concentration. Communication between search team members was critical for success and safety. Most of us found it helpful to close our eyes and focus on thinking and listening, as we couldn’t see anything anyway!