It’s getting REALLY f***ing hot in here…!

31 Oct
The burn building first thing in the morning…oh so pretty.

(WARNING:  There are some  photos below that could be a bit nauseating if you have a weak stomach.  If you are okay with that…happy reading. )

Since the community is so small at Palmer Station, the support staff (plumbers, mechanics, cooks, administrative assistants, etc.) act as the Fire Department.  It’s very similar to a volunteer fire department in a smaller town.  Since many of us do not have a background in fire science, we attend Fire School in conjunction the local community college.  The instructors are made up of experienced fire fighters from several local fire departments. 

On a hot day in August, ten of us met early Monday morning to get ‘schooled’ in fire safety.  We started in a classroom and were greeted by Palmer Station management.  We were given a brief introduction to Palmer Station and how their fire team works.  This was really helpful since almost half were new to the program and most of us were new to the station.  It was during this brief introduction that I first realized I had no idea what I was getting into.

After the talk of the Palmer fire team, we were greeted by Chuck, one of the fire instructors from the community college.  How can I describe Chuck…He is born to be a fire fighter.  It is in his blood.  He was a ‘shoot from the hip,’ gruff, and ‘straight to the point’ type of person.  Although a bit intimidating at first, he was an incredible instructor and I would not have any hesitations about entrusting my life to him.  In fact, if there was a burning building, I would want him first in line to come and help me.  In addition to Chuck, there was a plethora of other instructors, Peter, Mike, and several others that joined us throughout the week.

Chuck previewed the weeks’ activities and what each day would look like.  He explained that we would be learning some of the theoretical knowledge of fire safety; how it starts, spreads, extinguishing it, and prevention.  In addition to this, on Thursday, our final day of training, we would practice all of what we learned; geared up and all, and enter the ‘Burn Building.’  Yikes!

The rest of the morning on Monday was pretty chill, watching slide shows and YouTube clips about how fire starts, grows, and gets out of control.  The interesting thing is that most fire fighters LOVE fire.  Many of the video clips we watched were examples of how fire gets out of control and what NOT to do.  I think these clips were like pornography for fire fighters; they just loved watching them over and over.  It was like a sick obsession.  We would talk about what went right and what went wrong.  It was extremely interesting, but I have to admit that although I think fire is pretty amazing, I wasn’t as engrossed as some of the folks in the room.

During the afternoon, we had the opportunity to learn more about the fire gear (that we would become intimately close with over the next few days).   The gear included the following: helmet, gloves, bunker pants (with suspenders of course), boots, coat, SCBA equipment, fire hood, and mask.  We were taught how to properly fit yourself with your gear, what and how each item is used, as well as how it all works together.  This gear is fire-retardant, not fire proof, and not necessarily meant for you to remain in conditions that are extremely hot for extended periods of time.  After ensuring we had the right gear, we did some timed drills for putting it all on correctly.  It was amazing how long it takes to put on so few items and to ensure you do so correctly.  After some practice, we all increased our time and felt a bit more comfortable with our new gear.

We wrapped up our first day and I headed home for the night.  As I spent the next 50 plus minutes on my drive home, I contemplated what I learned and what I had to look forward to for the next few days.   I was a bit nervous thinking about what was yet to come.  We were going to be learning the same things that newbie fire school students learn in approximately 30 weeks over the next three days.  And the fact that others lives would depend on our ability to learn and be able to apply our knowledge in real situations was a bit scary.  Yikes!

Tuesday was another good day, but also brought some anxiety.  We started with more classroom time and then moved onto learning how to use the SCBA equipment in more detail.  The SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) equipment is what fire fighters use to provide breathable air while they are in dangerous environments.  It can be the difference between life and death in a matter of seconds, depending on the conditions.  So what we were learning was very vital to our own safety as well as the safety of the other community members.

We fitted ourselves with our masks and practiced breathing.  It was somewhat constricting and would take some getting used to.  Since we were using the SCBA without the rest of our bunker gear, I could only imagine how it would all feel together.  I was slightly overwhelmed.  Since my head is a bit on the small side (not including my hair, of course), it was challenging to get my mask to fit just right so I was having some challenges.  I chatted with the instructors and was ensured there would be more practice time throughout the remainder of the week.  We concluded our SCBA practice for the day and headed back to the classroom.

The afternoon was filled with some team building activities lead by one of the chiefs of the community college fire program.  He emphasized that all the knowledge and skill you have doesn’t matter if you don’t have a strong team that you can rely on.  It was an interesting afternoon getting to know the nine other folks in the room that could one day save my life.

Wednesday: The morning started with additional practice on the SCBA equipment.  We got in full gear and practiced breathing.  It was much harder than it looks.  There is lots of weight on you with all of your bunker gear and SCBA equipment plus you have to think AND breath at the same time.  It may sound silly, but it was challenging at first.  After more practice, I started feeling better about being able to actually use this equipment.  This was a good thing since the next day I would be in a situation where I needed to know what to do and how to use all of my equipment correctly.

On Wednesday, we also learned how to use the water hoses; setting them up, laying them out, connecting to the water source, moving them, pulling them, and putting them away.  It was pretty cool to have a fully loaded hose and ‘pretend’ to be putting out a fire in the college parking lot.  There were some cars that received a free carwash thanks to us.  It was a very exhausting day and very physically demanding.  We wrapped up the day talking and preparing for the final day of our training at the ‘burn building,’ putting to use all the knowledge we had gained this week.

Thursday, our final day of training finally came.  I must admit that I was nervous (and not the only one) about willingly going into a building that had an active fire.  This is exactly what you are taught as a kid to avoid.

We met at the burn building, a training center at the base of the foothills.  This building is designed to simulate a variety of fire scenarios and aid in the ongoing training for fire fighters.  We met up with additional instructors and talked through the plan of the day.  We would begin with fire extinguisher training (outside of the building), then start by starting a fire and watching the stages as it grows in a confined space.  From there, we go into the building in teams and practice doing searches, identifying where the fire is and at what stage it is at, and how to safely exit a building on fire.

The thought of going into a building that was intentionally set on fire was still a bit scary.  Although I felt much  more comfortable today than I did on Monday morning regarding approaching a fire, I was still not 100% comfortable that I could pull this off.   One bad choice or moment of panic and I could get hurt or put the life of someone else in danger.

Since I had some reservations during the week, I had talked with the instructors and let them know my feelings about the events of today.   To help ease my concern, it was recommended that I have some 1 on 1 attention from one of the instructors.  I agreed without question.  I figured if I was close to an instructor, I was much safer, right?

It's important that we check each others gear to ensure it's all put correctly.

We geared up on this hot August morning (the hottest day of the week) and began our exercises with practicing using the fire extinguishers.  This was a nice progression to slowly ease into the day.   Holding and using an extinguisher was very empowering and confidence building.

From there, everyone entered the burn building before the fire was started.  We gathered on the first floor just inside the door under the stairs (see photo below).  Once inside, there was a family room area and then a very small room off of that, similar to a nice sized walk in closet.  This small room was designed to contain the fire and specially made with two large fire doors to be able to control the oxygen flow.   The fire was started and we sat, watched, and waited.  We watched  as the fire grew slowly, and it was REALLY AMAZING.  Initially, I was in the back of the crowd with my new best friend Mike, one the instructors by my side for the first few exercises. 

As we watched, my fears were slowly waning.  The fire was really cool to watch grow and spread in this controlled environment.  I slowly inched forward, to a front row seat of the .  You could see the different layers as it grew, as well as what types of things accelerate and diminish the fire.  I felt a bit more at ease, but the day was still early. 

The exercises began after the fire got going.  We entered in groups of two with a host of instructors to watch and assist as needed.  The first drills we did were searching the rooms.  We practiced this at the community college in dark rooms, so we could understand the basics.  Now, with a fire in the building it was very different.  The room was pretty dark and very smoky.  We also practiced going up and down the stairs.  It’s amazing how your senses are altered when you can’t see and are wearing all of your bunker gear and SCBA.  As we were told, it’s hard to communicate with the SCBA equipment on and a roaring fire nearby.  You had to find ways to communicate with your partner.  This was truly pushing myself to limits I never thought I could do.  I was comforted knowing that Mike was very close.  And as the exercises continued, I built my confidence.      

Mike debriefing with Rex and I (I'm the one in the middle) regarding the drill we just wrapped up.

After each drill, we debriefed about what went well, what we would do differently, and received feedback from the instructors.  This was extremely beneficial and helped me build more confidence as the morning went on. 

The exercises continued and we practiced pulling hoses into the building (yes-up and down the stairs-quite the workout), dragging out ‘victims’ and in general, becoming familiar with the environment of a unfamilar building, smoky rooms, little if any light, and a raging fire. 

We continued with our drills and it felt great, but it was SOOO hot, inside the burn building as well as in the Denver summer heat.

The final drill of the day was to take place on the second floor.  To help prepare us for the unknown, we would be taken into an extremely dark room on the second floor directly above the fire (which was approximately 1200 degrees).  We were to use hose to find our way out since the hoses would be coming from the entry way and take us back to the truck. 

We were reminded of things to consider and three of us went in; Judy, Nandi, and myself.  We were walked upstairs and led into the room to the hose and instructed to begin.  Judy did her best to lead us and find the part of the hose that would direct us back to the stairs and eventually to the safe way out.  The twist (no pun intended) was that the hose was all twisted and jacked up and it kept leading us in circles between the two rooms.  We were kneeling this whole time and all working very well together to communicate help each other in finding the way out.   Keep in mind that directly below us was the raging fire.   

For what seemed like FOREVER, but was probably not more than 5 minutes, we followed the hose around and around.  At one point, I thought I’d found the correct direction and I became the leader with Nandi behind me and Judy at the tail.  I was wrong as well.  It was at this point that I noticed I was getting more and more hot.  My knees felt like they were on fire.  I made the statement ‘It’s gettin’ pretty hot back here,’ but we kept moving, attempting to find our way out.  The panic started to set in for me and that’s when I raised my voice louder and louder saying that same line.  We all remained pretty calm, but this drill was becoming extremely frustrating for me the longer it went on.  About 30 seconds before the instructors called it quits, I screamed ‘IT’S GETTING REALLY F***ING HOT IN HERE!’  I thought I would just melt any second now. 

The instructors pulled us all out and lead us down the stairs and to the door.  My first breath of fresh air was shocking.  It’s as if I was deprived from oxygen even though my SCBA equipment was working perfectly.  I was spent.  I felt like this last drill took everything I had and I didn’t have any energy left; to think, to walk, even to breath.  I was beat. 

We sat down and removed our gear in silence.  I was frustrated and angry that we couldn’t find our way out.  Mostly, I was fearful about how realistic that situation could be and what would I do in the event something like this really happened? 

We debriefed and talked about why this exercise was so vital.  It’s these types of situations that cause people to get hurt.  People panic and get scared and make poor decisions.  Fortunately, this was just a drill and we had instructors to pull us out before we made any bad decisions.  The instructors heavily emphasized how important it is to remain calm and stay focused.  And in the event you can’t find your way out safely, you immediately call for assistance. 

The day began wrapping up by putting away all of our gear and loading up the truck.

We were all beat.

We headed back to the classroom to wrap up the weeks’ training.  I noticed as I was packing my stuff up and heading back to the classroom that my knees felt like they were still on fire.  I asked Mike (remember, my new best friend) when the burning would go away.  He said that in a few minutes it should stop.

We got back to the classroom (about one hour since the final drill) and I noticed that my knees were pretty red still and felt like they were burning.  I guess all the PPE (personal protective equipment) I had wasn’t so protective.  I showed Mike again and he said, ‘Yep, you got 2nd degree burns.’  He provided some general first aid tips and asked if I needed anything.  At that point, I just figured that I had blisters that would heal in the next few days and I’d be fine. 

Boy, was I wrong.  This is what I saw that evening:

August 18th...It doesn't look that bad.

Day Two:

A heart...that's gotta be a good sign!

Day Three:

Now it was turning into a goiter. It was slightly frightening.

Since my growth was not improving on its own nor had it popped yet, I sought out a professional opinion.  I had the doctor at work take a gander at it.  He suggested popping it.  He took a sterilized needle and away he went.  It didn’t really hurt, but felt a bit strange as it oozed. 

Day Eleven (one day after the initial popping):

Slightly deflated, but I think it still had a heartbeat.

The doctor warned me that fluid would continue to build in the blister and to let it ooze on its own.  He instructed me to  to keep it clean and covered.   I followed doctors’ orders.

Around the beginning of September it was still full of fluid and didn’t appear to be diminishing so I decided to seek a opinoin of someone not connected to the program.  I knew I was going to be traveling through Chile and I wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could to prevent infection and scaring.  I went to an Urgent Care and was told that indeed, I had a second degree burn and yes it was healing properly.  The doctor and I talked about my upcoming travels through South America and he provided me with a super-strength antibiotic ointment specifically for treating severe burns.   We also talked about the program and where I planned on traveling next spring.  He gave me some suggestions based on his experiences.  It was a very productive visit and I felt more informed about my burn AND my travels.   

Let the healing begin…I’d been using the ointment and for the next few days after seeing the doc at Urgent Care, it really started throbbing.  Up until now, it was just a bit sensitive and tender.  Now it HURT, BAD!

This was such a small burn in retrospect, but hurt pretty intensely.  I can’t even imagine how folks feel that are more severely burned.  I was very grateful it was so small and that there was not more damage. 

October 2nd (45 days later): 

Painful and gross, but healing.  Now is when the nerves are regenerating and trying to get back to ‘normal.’

As of today, October 30th, I can say that the last bit of scabbing has finally come off.  There is still redness and sensitivity, but  I am finally able to put my full body weight on my knee without any pain.  I am doing everything I can to avoid really ugly scarring and doing my best to still care for it.  I guess now I have a really good story to tell, right?

What I took away from this experience:
1.  Fire fighters are BAD-ASS!  I have such a new-found respect for fire fighters. 
2.  In the event of a fire here at Palmer, I know what to do to. 
3.  Also, if there is a fire here,  I feel very comfortable that the fire team can bring me to safety.
4.  Not all PPE is made well. 
5.  I can do ANYTHING I set my mind to.
And lastly, and most importantly:
6.  Be fortunate for what you have…you never know when that could change.
Who would have thought such valuable lessons could have come from four days of fire school?

One Response to “It’s getting REALLY f***ing hot in here…!”

  1. Karen and Jack November 1, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    You are so amazing…I just told your Mom that I have no idea where your sense of adventure comes from as I KNOW for a fact, it’s not from her!!!! Once again, you’re providing us with such super pictures and vivid verbal descriptions that take us places most of us will never have the opportunity to see or experience…we look forward to each and every “installment”. We send hugs and love and wish you continued great times and safe travels. Karen and Jack

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