I have now been volunteering as a firefighter for four months, which is something I talk about every chance I get.
Each time I attend practice, my mind is swimming in the thrill of learning new skills. I am literally a broken record afterwards as I make it a point to share my adventures with my co-workers the next day. Heck, I bet my co-workers are right along with me in the journey, as my descriptions of the previous evening’s activities are explicit.
I absolutely love being at the fire department. It is my happy place where I get to chill out with the guys. I get to be a kid, and I am always taking selfies of my head against the backdrop of a bright, red fire truck. What more can I say — I am loving the journey of becoming a firefighter.
But the reality of what firefighter training consists of kicked me in the butt this past weekend when I attended my first course. Unlike practice nights, these courses are not all learning while having fun; they’re serious stuff, and in them, one wrong move can put my life in severe danger.
I still love the idea of becoming a firefighter later on in life, but as I study the essentials of what I need to know to battle fire and rescue people, I find myself looking through a completely different mask. My firefighter friends will understand that pun.
I always knew that my journey of becoming a firefighter wouldn’t by any means be easy, but what I may not have considered was how frightening it would be. I have yet to enter a simulated smoked-filled burning building — unlike fog, you you can’t see through smoke. I am curious to know how I will react when I cannot rely on my vision any longer, as I really don’t like the dark.
This is when you may ask me: “Don’t you have a flashlight?” I would reply: “Yes, I do have a flashlight on my helmet.” However, the beam from a flashlight won’t always be the lamp I need to see the dark path when searching for victims. In fact, the light may even make visibility worse.
Pushing the thought of entering dark, burning buildings out of my mind for a minute gives me the chance to talk about jumping into my gear in under one minute — literally.
I found myself on the main level of the fire hall with my firefighter gear all set up and ready to be put on — again in one minute. Setting my gear up with my boots pulled through the legs of my firefighter pants, with my balaclava, jacket, helmet and gloves right near by, I waited for the instructor to say go. That’s when we raced against the clock to have all of that heavy protective equipment strapped securely in place against our bodies.
As soon as I heard the instruction, I ripped my shoes off, tried to jump into my oversized boots, did my dance of pulling my pants up and my suspenders over my shoulders, inserted my arms into my jacket sleeves, individually fasted the hooks that secure my jacket closed — which really slows me down — and crowned myself with my helmet, not forgetting to secure it in place with the clip.
We practiced doing this as a group at least three times, and believe it or not, it is a lot of work practicing getting your gear on in one minute. By the time I had taken my gear off for good that day, the long hair on top of my head that I had worked hard to straighten into a beautiful dirty blonde mane now looked like a rats nest sitting on my head. I looked, more or less, like a drowned rat as my naturally curly hair that I have fought with all my life had taken the opportunity to rebel and curl in the middle of my forehead.
My hair only acted more defiant the next day during our training of using a self-contained breathing apparatus. This time we were given two minutes to climb into our gear and hook our oxygen tanks up to our masks. Now, before you go off wondering how much weight I am actually carrying and whether I have any body strength for this type of work, I must say that, on average, firefighters will carry an extra 60 pounds of protective gear, including their oxygen tanks. So you can imagine that walking through a little bit of snow and just down the street felt a bit like I was just trudging while carrying the weight of the world on my back.
Doing two simple laps up and down the street, my brain started entertaining thoughts of: “Why are you doing this? You could be at home relaxing or even shopping right now.” These thoughts were followed by: “No, Jasmine. Don’t give up! You have to be committed to this! You’re doing great.”
Finally making it back to the fire hall, I realized how low I was on oxygen and I was surprised my low-oxygen alarm didn’t sound. Peeling off my gear and feeling the cold sweat that had accumulated on my back, I thought I would start floating towards the ceiling, but instead I just felt a sense of success. “Hey, look at that. I did it,” I thought.
Filling up my oxygen tank was a piece of cake as it gave me a chance to chat with the rest of the rookie firefighters about volunteering. This is when I realized that even having an oxygen tank refilled takes time.
Training to be a firefighter and being a reporter is a life of balancing two different worlds. As a reporter, I have weekly deadlines that I try to meet but with no deadly consequences. As a firefighter, I have to achieve things in minutes, which isn’t easy, but it adds up to me knowing how to rescue and save lives and being able to avoid possibly deadly situations.
The life of a rookie firefighter — I may be just learning it all now, but with my committed heart, I won’t be just learning it forever.