chilling feet

chilling feet

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Firefighter Training for the South Pole

It is finally time to stop talking about the Arctic. Let's talk about the Antarctic, or rather getting ready for the Antarctic.

When Sarah and I were talking about her going to Antarctica the first time she mentioned there is a secondary team everyone is required to be on, such as Trauma, Fire team, and a few others.  She is in charge of the trauma team as the doc and in that role would plan out certain rescue exercises should anything happen.  Basically really cool stuff where she would plan out a person needing rescued in certain areas on the base.

I think even back then Sarah knew she needed to get me on the fire team so I would not be able to grow one of the fiercest beards the South Pole had ever seen.  She claims this was not a motive but we all know it had to be part of it.

As it turns out she did not have to work too hard to sway me, even when I knew the truth about the facial hair commitment.  For a few years now I have felt the low deep burn from having never served the country.  The short side of the story was me deciding not to be a chaplain in the military for a few reasons, but mostly because they are not allowed to carry any firearms. Apparently I am the opposite of the guy from the movie that just came out, Hacksaw Ridge.  There were a few other reasons I never joined the military and so I would ponder what it might look like to be a police officer or fireman. As I lost a little bit of time working and living I began to paint a picture in my mind of living in a small town where I could serve as a volunteer fireman while working at a local church.

Then came the question for what training I wanted to do for the South Pole - trauma or fire school?  An easy question to answer, for both of us! Sarah had already done the trauma training and they allowed her to go through fire training as it is always good to have more people trained to fight "the" fire should it ever rear its ugly head down South.

So we headed from Guam to Denver for team training and then fire school - well two weeks of fire training we called fire school.  I do not want anyone to be confused by what we were trained to do or what we think of ourselves.  We are not firefighters and have not done even an ounce of the real training, but we did go through a shotgun training school quickly and learned a lot of helpful things.

The first few pics are from the weekend after our team training in Denver, which was fun by the way. Once finished we had a chance to head out and see Rocky Mountain National Park.  Beautiful!  The weather was quite nice and we were able to see a decent amount of the park in a very short time. Vistas peering out over golden valleys - climbing to the top of spectacular trails that offer a brisk view of mountains as far as the eye can see - seeking out the mighty Colorado river where it is still just a tiny brook we could wade through in my Chacos and then sit by peacefully listening to its silent beginning - then catching Sarah trying to get a quick nap on the the side of the parking area. All very nice and highly recommended to anyone going that way.

Our friends +Austin Russell and the now Alli Russell were out there on their honeymoon, which was amazing as we sadly had to miss their wedding.  Dinner with them and trying not to feel like we were stepping wildly into their private week was both fun and we felt beyond grateful to them for including us in their special week.

Then FIRE SCHOOL!! The moment we were so excited about had finally arrived and it did not in any way at all disappoint.

First of all, trying on our gear was as anyone would imagine it might be for a ten year old boy who wants to grow up to be a fire fighter, which clearly described almost every person putting on gear.  Well maybe sometimes I project my own inner ten year old on those around me.  I have been told that there are moments I think I am sharing with everyone around me only to find out I was the only hollering idiot full of excitement.  +Bryan Baddorf  still claims I was the only one in the theater hooting with excitement and shouting wildly "I've been waiting for this my whole life" when Yoda busted out his light saber to fight Count Dooku. Just as then I think at least a few of our team were as innerly jazzed as I was to be putting on the gear.

The training was informative, thorough, dangerous at times (but not if we did what we were told to do), and absolutely fantastic! We got some hands on training with various types of fire extinguishers and putting out live fires with them. We were given ample opportunity of time in our gear so we could come to understand what it really felt like to work in such heavy attire.  Our instructors made sure we also had various chances to do exercises on our air so we would know how it mentally and physically effected us in moments of stress.

Then there was the smoke and fire.  It's sort of a good thing to understand what the heat feels like when it reaches the temperatures it does during a real fire.  It is beneficial to see what it's like to be blinded by smoke while you're crawling through a dark room looking for a human being.  Can you imagine doing it for the first time when it really matters?

The confusion and stress felt is considerable.  I felt this the most when we were doing an exercise in full gear climbing through a training unit designed to help a firefighter learn how to crawl and work through small areas. In all of the gear my body overheated quickly and I had to force my mind to calm down and stop breathing so hard. I was finding breathing on the air almost impossible, as if I could not get enough. I found it more difficult to crawl through the confining and narrow obstacles than through smoke and fire. A truly great exercise.  I did not try it in complete darkness as Sarah did - yes she is still the boss and takes names no matter what she is doing.

Surely I have not felt the reality of what we might feel running into a real fire looking for real people, but the training gave us an inkling of some of what we will feel. The fire fighters who do this constantly and practice for years, not just two weeks, learn the muscle memory and hone the skills they need to stay calm under the insane stress that comes from the circumstances of running into a fire.  Our small dose of this training only gives me a higher respect for the men and women who give their lives to fighting fires.

One of my professors from seminary spent some time as a chaplain for local fire fighters.  As part of his responsibilities he would find himself standing a the scene of a fire to offer whatever support he could to the firefighters and families. When he would stop to describe the sort of scene he would watch at a fire he would get an admirable look of distant haze about him as he would say, "It is an odd thing when one sees people pouring out of a burning building.  Looks of distress as they search for safety.  Yet stranger still to witness other human beings running into the way of danger while everyone else is running in the opposite direction."  

Our training was memorable and while I hope I never have to use it, I am so much more equipped to deal with fire hazards now than I was before.  As our site manager for the year at the South Pole said, "I will never look at a fire extinguisher the same again," I have found myself thinking the same thing. And it is true.  We arrived back in Guam and I could not help but to see what type of extinguishers we had on hand.  Our training also offered us some hours spent in the classroom learning about fire behavior and how to handle the different types.  These sessions were illuminating and crazy informative.

The rest are some pictures and a video or two at the bottom, all with a comment or two about them.  Go hug a firefighter and thank them for what they do!

We practiced throwing our gear on as fast as possible - classic firefighter skills. How fast can one get dressed into their gear and jump on a truck or run into a fire? Sarah made it into the top four of our group.  I gave it a few attempts but was still only one week out from gall bladder removal.  I used that as an excuse a few times but it was real and I was told no exercise.  I broke that rule a few times but only in the hope to learn vital information.
One of our instructors teaching us how to rescue another firefighter.
After our entry into the fire or smoke exercises we would do a recap to talk about what we did right and wrong or didn't even think about.

As in the photo above, they took us in one of their practice hallways to see what it would be like to experience a flashover.
One of our instructors and Sarah laugh.  I love this photo because our instructors were a mixture of business and fun. When they needed to be serious they were firefighter serious. When it was time to laugh they did so heartily. What a great group of men and women of Aurora Fire Department in Colorado.

In the first video we got to use a giant rolling chem extinguisher which is similar to the kind we will have down in Antarctica. Each of us got to unroll the hose, turn it on, test it and then go put out a fire with it.  Watch this video see the power of this beast.  And that's Sarah on the hose ready to help if something goes wrong. Super cool. The second video is from when we were watching the flashover and it is also super cool.