Fighting fire with smokescreens

Training day
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  June 29, 2011

I could barely see my own hands through the darkness and thick smoke — but I could hear. My ears were assaulted by the shrill beeping of several smoke detectors, the hectic barking commands and communication of firefighters coming through the window, the clomping of axe handles and boots against the floor as a team of three men felt their way along the walls to rescue a downed colleague. Once they located him, they fashioned his air tank and straps into a kind of harness so they could drag him back to the window and hand him, feet-first, to fellow firefighters who waited on the roof outside.

It was, one hopes, the closest I'll ever get to such a scenario; luckily, it was fake, a drill, scheduled as part of national Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week, which takes place every June. Last week, the Portland Fire Department used the now-empty International Marine Terminal (out of which the Cat ferry used to operate) to run several training scenarios; in addition to the "downed-man" drill, the firefighters also had to tackle a safety-hazard maze and a simulated rescue mission based on a fatal incident in Denver.

Do you know how heavy firefighting gear is? I do, because I put it all on — right around 50 pounds of boots, suit, air tank, air mask, helmet, gloves, the works — before navigating the maze myself.

The first obstacle involved getting onto my belly and slinking underneath a messy web of wires, all of which got snagged on my helmet and air tank. (The best way to do it, I learned later, would have been to turn my body so that my back — and thus, the snare-prone tank — was against the wall, and to scoot along as though I was swimming the sidestroke.) Once I was disentangled, I crawled on until I reached a narrow passageway, meant to simulate a wall that's had a hole punched through it. I had to maneuver between wall studs. Much like when you're moving your friend's recliner through his new, tiny apartment door, navigating the narrow space involved backing into the opening tank-first and squeezing the rest of my body though at an angle. Then: what I henceforth referred to as the "Mayday Box" — I crawled into a small, box-like space, and once I was inside, they lowered a fourth wall so that I was fully enclosed. Trapped. This is the first situation in which a trained firefighter would make a Mayday call — letting their company know that they need assistance.

After they let me out of my enclosure, I crawled onward, around a corner, where I was met with a human-sized tube. Slide through, they told me, so I did, pulling myself along with my arms. And then, to approach the last obstacle, I crawled up a short flight of stairs until I was on a platform. Once I was there (and, I admit, with some warning — though the real firefighters didn't get any) the floor gave out beneath me and I tumbled unceremoniously onto a pile of shredded insulation and debris about two feet below. (Unlike the firefighters, I was denied the pleasure of having a large bag of more such scraps also thrown on top of me, to simulate the ceiling coming down.) This is the second Mayday situation: "I've fallen through the floor," the firefighters said into their two-way radios. "Now the ceiling's on top of me. Mayday. Mayday."

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