March 30, 2007

Journalist faces fire, walks away with understanding, gratitude

Editor's note: Last week I posted an article I had written for our local paper about a fire school held here on the military installation.This week I followed it up with a commentary, personal reflections from my time in "their shoes." It was an eye opening experience, even for me a former volunteer. I hope you get as much from it as I did.

-- Published in Fort Polk Guardian (March 30, 2007) --
By: MICHELLE LINDSEY, Guardian staff writer

Smoke fills the room as I crouch low trying to find relief from the thick vapors that seem to have a life of their own. My chest tightens as I try to take small, shallow breaths, my eyes tearing. On either side of me, firefighters clad in heavy yellow suits and airpacks line the walls. Then I remember the camera.
I lift it to my eye and watch through the viewfinder as a fire instructor from the Louisiana State University Fire and Emergency Training Institute sets ablaze the left side of the wall in front of me. Smoke billows across the ceiling, forming small spirals and circles that are as beautiful as they are dangerous. I feel the gloved hand of another instructor on my belt loop as he pulls me away from the fiery beast. I can feel the heat build as I document the flames leaping through the air, licking at the walls above the firefighters.
Working as a staff writer for the Guardian has led me to some unusual experiences –– from military training exercises to infant massage classes. I often dismiss my fears in exchange for satisfying my curiosities when asked to participate in what I am covering for the Guardian. This was no different.
Fort Polk firefighters joined with fire departments from Sabine, Rapides and Beauregard parishes for the second annual Louisiana State University Regional Firefighters Mini School March 17-18.
“Are you enjoying yourself?” Greg Self, Fort Polk Fire and Emergency Services, asked with a laugh. “You know I am,” I replied.
Having worked with Fort Polk’s Department of Emergency Services personnel before, he knew I wouldn’t be shy about getting involved.
“Wait until they start exiting the simulator (where firefighters experience the characteristics and mannerisms of a flashover fire),” Self said. “It gets pretty hot, so you have to crawl on the floor to get to the door. Sometimes they stumble a little, so be careful,” he advises.
I watch in awe as smoke billows out from even the smallest openings of the mobile building. “I can’t imagine what 1,100 degrees feels like,” I comment.
As Self explained the gear and safety equipment I was reminded of a close call my uncle, a Houston firefighter, had a few years ago and how these items saved his life. For me, being around emergency personnel is nothing new. My mother was a police officer, my brother a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician. I even volunteered for a while, but I am still amazed at the risks these people willingly take to help others.
A few minutes later, David Manning, LSU instructor, exits the simulator. Self points to his helmet.
“It melted,” I exclaim, trying to get a closer look. The front bubbles where the heat won the battle against the plastic.
“That’s why the students put aluminum on their helmets,” Self said.
“Would you like to suit up?” Jack Canton, LSU instructor, asks.
“Are you kidding?” I ask. A few minutes later I was “suited up.” From boots to bunker gear, I even had a helmet and gloves though I did not wear them for long.
“Looks like you’re ready,” said Michael Kuk, chief, Fort Polk FES.
“Bring it on,” I said with a laugh.
For the next few hours I walk around in the gear. It is heavy and cumbersome and I feel like a klutz as I try to maneuver through the different training exercises, photographing the activity.
In one of the exercises, fire instructors use a controlled propane leak to help students learn to work as a team.
“If you stand here you can get a great photo of (the instructor) lighting the tank,” another instructor advises as Self and I move to stand behind him.
I hold my breath as he opens the valve on the tank at his feet and vapors hiss through the larger training tank a few yards away. Seconds later a torch is lowered to the “leak” in the tank and with a “whoosh” the fire grows to a glowing five-foot ball of fiery reds and oranges.
Excited, I walk around in a wide arc snapping photographs as the firefighters work to control the flames. The heat of the fire mixes with the spray from the water hoses, creating a beautiful rainbow contrasting against the angry flames and heavy smoke.
I talk to many of the firefighters, watch them joking with each other, listen to their stories. A few ask if I want to join their departments. I admit for a minute I am tempted, but I realize their job is more than parades and Dalmatians. It goes beyond sliding down poles and rescuing kittens in trees. I may not have walked a mile in their shoes, but I did spend a few hours in them and realize that this is a unique group of people. They are true heroes. I’ve spent my life surrounded by firefighters in three states and realize they have one thing in common. They see each other as family and treat outsiders as lifelong friends. In their world there is no room for error, but there is plenty for family and laughter. Their job is dangerous, but they don’t do it for the glory or attention. They do it because they are needed. They run to danger when others run away from it. It is something that cannot be explained.
After spending a day in their shoes, seeing the dangers they face in training as well as on the job, there is only one thing I can say ... thank you. You are truly America’s homefront guardians.

Editor’s note: This was a controlled exercise. At no time was the reporter in any danger.

For more articles in the Fort Polk Guardian, visit our web page.

2 Tea Party Guest:

lime said...

terrific article.

stitcherw said...

Another great article, thanks for sharing.