It's November 11. On this day we remember our fallen soldiers who went into service to selflessly defend and rescue their fellow human race. I believe that this honour to remember the selfless should also be bestowed upon our emergency service men and women.
I recently was awarded the once in a lifetime opportunity to accompany Gravenhurst Fire Chief Larry Brassard to a multi- station training day. The fresh batch of Gravenhurst firefighter recruits would be collaborating and working with recruits from Bracebridge, Lake of Bays/Huntsville and Muskoka Lakes. The chief said that if I was serious about covering a day like this I needed to get sized for bunker gear, a mask and I needed to get in on the action. I was game. Or so I thought.
One week prior to training day I went to get sized for my bunker gear, I was bright eyed and bushy tailed. I then met with deputy fire chief Todd Clapp and tried on the gear. As I was putting on firepants which are 10 x heavier than a pair of snow pants, which then you have to maneuver over some heavy duty rubber boots, a hood, long hair, hat, oversized jacket, gloves, and as I'm struggling to make sure I'm paying attention to it all and that it all fits, Todd then says something along the lines of "so as you can see how much this all weighs and that's without the tanks" and I then slightly panicked. It's restrictive, it's uncomfortable, it's heavy and it is the only thing that is keeping them alive during a fire.
Sizing of my mask came next. Now while I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to breath in one of these and not hyperventilate, I understood how important it was to get this sizing just right. You begin to learn extremely quickly when in a container full of smoke to trust and place your life in the quality of your equipment. We'll come back to the importance of this equipment, which frankly before this exercise I had grossly underestimated.
Deputy Fire Chief Harry Baranik from the Muskoka Lakes fire department gave me the mask 101 run down. He tested the equipment with me in it to make sure everything fit. I trusted that it did as apparently I passed. The last thing to await me was training day.
My day on Oct. 19 began at 7 a.m., I caught the sunrise on my way to the Port Sydney fire hall where my first round of training was scheduled. I was both excited and nervously scared, yes it is possible to experience these simultaneously when you know you're going into a 'live fire event' with zero training while being given the opportunity to go behind the scenes of a training experience which most of us will never get a chance to participate in.
I arrived at 8:15 a.m. to meet with Larry. The training officers and recruits had an earlier start as set up for the day had already begun. I was introduced to the recruits and immediately humbled by the very fact that I'm simply there to document their journey for one day, while they are committed and in it for the duration of the remainder of the year and beyond. And they are truly committed. First, and foremost Muskoka firefighters are volunteer based. That translates to the fact that these people have jobs, lives, families, friends and yet they are committed enough to fit in this part-time but somewhat full-time job. Because while they are compensated when on a call, during their training, however, they are reading 500 page work books on their own time. In addition they have training at the firehall during the weekdays for a minimum of five months.
As the training officers welcome the recruits with opening remarks and a run down of the days events, they also establish a military style troop collaboration which is present and carries into many training scenarios. The recruits are trained to work as a group, the message is that there is safety in working as a team. They use the buddy system and work in tandem.
As the recruits are dismissed to suit up so am I. Larry spares me the tank for the first training session- how to use a fire extinguisher. This was right up my ally, nothing too serious and I could definitely learn how to use a fire extinguisher properly and not just from the instructions on the handle. I passed that one with flying colours.
Following this first rather nice starter lesson, Larry informed me that we should get our tanks and get ready for the next set of training adventures. Todd's words echoed "that's without the tank." I quickly understood that moving around in an emergency situation, in gear that weighs easily 65 lbs is more than a work out, its a sacrifice of self to save another life. You have to be willing to accept all of that uncomfortableness to do this job. It takes dedication and commitment.
With my tank strapped on and my first few breaths of air in my mask, in which again I just hoped I wasn't going to hyperventilate, I was ready. Sort of. Not really, but Larry wasn't going to let me off the hook, he was set on taking me into a burning container. After all I did sign a waiver.
Along the training course Larry asked if I was interested in participating in a chainsaw exercise, which entails cutting out a hole in a mock roof. Since I was wearing gear I was not use to I thought I would pass on the chainsaw holding for the safety of everyone. But stop for a second and realize what these firefighters are expected to do that as part of their job duties. If someone wrote in your job description that you will have to climb onto the roof of a burning building in 65 plus pounds of gear, outfitted with a ladder, an axe and a chainsaw, which you will have to carefully maneuver on the roof and cut out a square hole while the building is burning beneath you - you would probably say something along the lines of "ya no thanks." But the point is that there are people who will and thank the universe for them. We should be more than thankful to those who have lost their lives and those who put their lives on the line every time there is a call.
Before I was set to experience how a live fire and smoke behave in two shipping containers, I was allowed to hold the nozzle of a fire hose! The recoil of it when the second person behind you holding the hose releases their grip is some real water pressure realization.
As I patiently waited and watched the recruits and training officers emerge from the smouldering smoke filled containers, the butterflies in my stomach were growing as the smoke billowed out. There was no turning back now, and so I made sure I was covered and wearing all the gear. I was as oxygenated as I could be and with Larry behind me I filed in with the rest of the recruits, kept breathing and observed. Heat rises so I was instructed that if I begin to get hot to kneel down. The recruits with me had tasks to perform as they were being taught what to look for and how to survive in a burning building. I had the luxury of being able to sit back observe them and watch the fire and heat rise, the smoke dance, and experience the toasty sensation of the radiating heat. This is not for the faint of heart. Following the exercise Larry informed me that the temperature while we were in the containers exceeded 700 degrees at the ceiling. These are the working conditions of a firefighter. Why do they do it? After having talked to a few of them during the day, sincerely because they want to help their fellow mankind.
I exited that shipping container sweaty and incredibly thankful for the equipment I had received. Larry informed me that the equipment I was wearing that day was $11,000, clearly worth every penny to withstand 700 degrees and protect the lives of those protecting the lives of others. All of a sudden I looked at fire budgets in a much different way. You would as well when you realized that the only thing between you and a 700 degree room is this layer of equipment.
My day at Port Sydney fire hall had come to an end, my last recruit experience was to be held at the Bracebridge fire hall. If I thought I had come out of the live fire exercise with some grace I certainly had lost it during the search and rescue training. Suited up in full gear, with a blacked out mask, tank on, the idea is to simulate blacked out, smoked filled conditions while looking for bodies. This exercise is done with a buddy, in a maze type of environment, the recruits carry sledgehammers to tap and sound out the floor to make sure they don't fall through. While this is done inside a fire hall, in a controlled environment, without any smoke or extra heat, being on all fours, crawling around on the floor, with 65 extra pounds of gear, with zero food in my system I tapped out.
The recruits beside me stopped, waited for me to exit their training scenario and continued on to find the body they were instructed to search for. Humbling is an understatement, the next day all these guys got up and did it again. I'm approaching 40 but had I experienced something like this 10 years ago I might have signed up. It's an exhilarating adrenaline rush, but the risks and dangers are also right there.
Having experienced just one day in the life of a firefighter recruit I'm thankful and grateful that there are men and women willing to undertake a physically and mentally challenging career so that someone like me can feel safer. Especially the men and women who choose to participate in this profession on a volunteer basis never know when they will need to leave their job, families and lives to deal with a call. As a society who depend on these men and women to preform heroic acts every time they suit up to attend an emergency let's take a moment on this day which celebrates heroes to remember all those in service to human kind.
Lest we forget ...