(Part 2 of a series)
I’ve always respected firefighters. I mean, they risk their lives by entering burning structures—and they volunteer to do it. How can you not admire that, right?
But after trying on their gear (which weighs more than 50 pounds!), I have a whole new level of respect for them.
Along with fellow North Allegheny Patch editor Rich Cook, I recently paid a visit to the former Sun Books store, where McCandless firefighters were participating in training exercises.
Volunteers from three stations, Highland, Peebles, and Ingomar, spent two hours going through an obstacle course that included following a hose, ducking through wall studs and entering a tunnel filled with tangled wires.
Oh yeah, and they did it all while blindfolded and wearing full gear. Why, you ask? Because it simulates being in a burning building where nothing is visible.
It all looked very cool, and I was willing to take the volunteers’ word for it when they said the course was challenging. Then they invited me to try it.
Heck, they even had firefighting gear, courtesy of a junior member, ready for me to wear.
Let me tell you, getting on that gear isn’t easy.
With the assistance of Shawn O’Brien, deputy chief at the Highland station, I pulled on heavy boots, pants, suspenders, gloves and a jacket. Tightening my helmet was time-consuming (and also crushed my hair), as was strapping on the self-contained breathing apparatus, known as SCBA.
Firefighters are required to get their SCBAs on in 60 seconds or less, in pitch dark. I would need a LOT of practice to do it that quickly!
Needless to say, it took some time to fit all of this equipment over my clothes.
I was feeling pretty good in my gear, until I tried to walk—and I could barely move!
The heavy gear made movements awkward and severely limited my mobility, but that was just me. The rest of the experienced firefighters moved as easily as though they were wearing air.
SOB, as he’s affectionately known, also started up my air tank. Admittedly, that was a scary moment. When the SCBA is activated you need to remember to breathe. As a mask was strapped over my face, I could feel myself start to panic.
With SOB’s coaching, I caught a lungful of air and started to breathe in and out of my mouth, all the while sounding like Darth Vader (cue the bad Star Wars jokes here.)
Then it was on to the course.
The fire company paired me up with volunteer Nathan Naylor, who skillfully guided me through the course. Thankfully, the firefighters didn’t blindfold me.
One of the obstacles we completed involved crawling through a barrel on our bellies. Normally, this would present no problem. But with the gear on, I could hardly make the swimming motions needed with my arms and legs.
Perhaps taking pity on me, Nate grabbed my arms and pulled me through. Thanks, buddy!
We also climbed wood slats and crawled under and above another wood structure.
This took tremendous effort, and I could see where I was going! With their vision blocked, the other firefighters, working in teams of two, successfully managed to navigate the course, all at a faster clip than me.
By the time I took my gear off, I was sweaty, tired and I could tell my body would be sore the next day.
Make no mistake about it, firefighting is a hard job—but also fun. The volunteers were extremely supportive as I struggled through the course. Based on the camaraderie I witnessed, I wouldn’t mind donning a uniform and joining the crew—if only they could find me a helmet that wouldn't crush my hair!
Check back with Patch tomorrow for video of the firefighters going through the obstacle course.