By KENNETH DEAN
In a typical Hollywood fire scene, a firefighter rushes into a raging fire wearing little protective equipment.
The movie shows the hero's bunker gear protecting him from superheated fire and explosions while he carries victims from the scene, and all he has to show for this feat is a face covered in black soot and a slight cough.
However, if that had been a real fire situation, that firefighter would have succumbed to smoke poisons. A flashover — a sudden flash of intense superheated fire — would incinerate a firefighter within seconds.
“That is Hollywood because in a real situation that firefighter would not be able to do any of that. While our gear protects us, it will burn,” Tyler Fire Department's Fire Marshal Paul Findley said.
According to FEMA's U.S. Fire Administration, firefighters each year respond to more than 400,000 structure fires, which claim an average of 2,500 lives, injure more than 13,500 and cause about $10 billion in property losses nationwide.
The U.S. Fire Administration's website indicates 83 firefighters died last year on the job.
Capt. Jeff Hudgens said there are multiple types of fires, and each presents different challenges.
Car fires, house fires, refinery fires, chemical fires and other blazes vary in makeup.
“We have to determine a lot of things real quick so everyone is safe. People think we just show up and fight fire, but there is a science to it, and we are learning new techniques every day,” he said.
Hudgens played a video depicting a standard room of furniture catching fire.
In the opening of the video, a small flame is in the seat cushion of a chair. Soon however, the fire jumps to the draperies, carpet and more furniture.
The room becomes superheated, and other items of furniture start to emit gases, which is what really burns in a fire.
“You can take a flame to this piece of wood, but the wood itself is not burning, it is the gases inside the wood,” he said.
Less than four minutes later, the room and adjoining room are on fire, and anyone in either room would succumb to poisons in the smoke within seconds and burn due to the superheated temperatures.
“In a flashover like this, the air is superheated to more than 1,000 degrees. If that happens, a firefighter only has three seconds to get out, or they will be burned to death. This is why we constantly train,” Hudgens said.
Tyler has a training facility with a live-burn building, where firefighters fight actual blazes in a structure. There is a tower to rappel down from, stair exercises and a building for mock rescue operations in heavy smoke.
In the live-burn building, burning hay bales are used because they produce high heat and thick smoke.
Ladder 2 firefighter and paramedic Randy Lee said he loves his job, and that includes the training.
“It's just another day on the job, and I love it,” he said.
Lee said the “cottage,” the name firefighters gave the burn house, even though a sign on the building reads “Messer's Grill,” is used in a way that is as realistic as a fire can be.
“It gets really hot in there, and the smoke gets thick, and that is what we want to simulate,” he said.
When the door on the cottage opens, firefighters in the exercise make their way inside and try to locate and extinguish the fire.
The main thing is to never let fire get between firefighter and escape.
In the rescue operation, firefighters learn how to blindly take care of a fallen firefighter in a constantly changing environment.
“Training is paramount to our safety and to the safety of the citizens we serve. When we respond to a fire we must have confidence in what we are doing because there are lives on the line,” Findley said.
Fire training is only part of the equation. Tyler firefighters also train for high-angle rescues such as from multi-story buildings, swift water rescues, auto accidents and hazardous material spills.
At the center of it all is critical element: equipment.
Hudgens said the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) runs upward of $5,000 per unit, and then there are the oxygen bottles and the Personal Alert Safety System (PASS units) which drive the total cost of each Tyler firefighter's personal protection to more than $10,000.
Bunker gear can range from low quality to much higher quality, but most bunker gear is rated to take heat up to 1,200 degrees before the material breaks down.
Once it breaks down or is burned, it must be replaced to ensure the firefighter is protected.
The PASS device automatically alerts after a period in which the firefighter has not moved, or can be activated manually if the firefighter is injured or becomes trapped in an area.
If firefighters become trapped and still conscious, we get him or her to tell us as much as possible about where they might be as in room size and how far they went into the building, he said.
Hudgens said the equipment firefighters use has come a long way since the days when a bucket of water was used and firefighters wore long rubber coats.
“The manufacturers are always making changes,” he said.
Firefighters use a system in which a foot or hand stays in contact with a wall so they can retrace their way back out of the structure in a hurry. This also helps should the firefighter become injured or trapped.
Findley said if a firefighter is trapped then a unit called Rapid Intervention Team is deployed to find and assess the firefighter before dragging him or her out of the fire.
“This is a very crucial piece of equipment to have because without it could mean the difference between life and death,” Hudgens said.
Each firefighter also has tools they carry such as flashlights, ripping and prying tools and a fire hose, which not only is heavy, but when in use pushes against the firefighter with a force the firefighter must control to be able to fight fire.
Hudgens explained a firefighter must be able to smash through a wall with the tools and fit through tiny areas to be able to get to possible victims or to escape should the need arise.
The tools also help tear down Sheetrock to ventilate an area and to attack fire at its source, which could be inside a wall or in a ceiling.
The tools everyone is familiar with are the trucks, ladders, and the engines, but it is the personal tool the firefighter carries that could save his life.
Even residents have tools though and Findley said the standard smoke alarm is one of the biggest life savers in a fire situation.
“When a smoke alarm goes off, everyone should get out of the house. If there is a fire, then there could be less than a minute before the entire place is on fire or filled with smoke. If that happens then it is too late,” he said. “There are surveys that show most people believe they have six to eight minutes to get out, but that isn't true. They may only have seconds.”
Findley said the Tyler Fire Department has about 1,000 smoke alarms to pass out to homeowners in the city limits of Tyler.
“They can call us at the administration building at 903-535-0005 and can either come get one or we can schedule a time and go to their home and actually put the smoke alarms in the best possible place,” he said.
Findley said location is a key, because the alarm needs to be in an area where it can be heard.
The fire marshal stressed the importance for each family to have a fire plan to ensure they can exit the building safely.
A fire plan is a key in making sure everyone gets out in a timely matter and that plan should be practiced and re-practiced until everyone knows what they need to do.
The fire plan must be completed with a designated meeting place outside the home so everyone can be accounted for so firefighters know everyone is out of the home safely.
Lee said that if you do find yourself in a fire, get down low as you can because the heat will be more intense higher up and the smoke will be thicker.
Hudgens, Lee and Findley could not stress enough the importance of never going back into a building once you are safely out.
“People die every year because they ran back in to get something like photos or records, and it's not worth it. Even if someone is missing don't go back in because then we have two victims to find,” Findley said.
Looking back at the cottage, still smoking from an exercise just an hour before, Findley reiterated the need for firefighters to keep up their training.
“Our training never stops, because we cannot afford to have a bad day. So the only way for us to ensure we are at the top of our game is to train and train regularly,” he said. “We do this to better be able to help those who need us when the call comes in.”