Walking into a burning building goes against human nature, so firefighters prepare themselves through drills that mimic the real thing.
Before the demonstration, Tyler Fire Capt. Jeff Hudgens, a safety instructor, discussed equipment, fire behavior and types of blazes.
Instructions were next on bunker gear, and self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA.
Next, was learning to breathe with the SCBA on and becoming comfortable with mock-simulation facets such as being blinded by smoke.
The building where the first drill took place is two stories with a maze of rooms, small spaces and turns.
Most days, smoke is used to blind firefighters, but on this day for filming purposes, a blindfold was used.
Hudgens advised using one hand or foot to stay in contact with a wall at all times. That allows a firefighter to find his or her way out of a smoke-filled burning building.
Being blinded presents challenges.
One starts trying to guess location, if right decisions are being made and what to do with a couch in the way.
Everything is a challenge, such as using a “hooligan,” a tool firefighters use to bash in a Sheetrock wall and climb through a 16-inch opening.
Breathing through the SCBA resonates in your ears, and sweat beads up in the mask during negotiation of the small opening.
With the first exercise behind, it was time to move to the “cottage,” where burning drills take place.
The expressions on the firefighters’ faces prior to this drill underscored the seriousness of this exercise.
“We have to be ready for anything, and we don’t take any chances,” Hudgens said.
On site were the Ladder 2 crew and two engines. Hoses of various sizes were hooked to a fire hydrant and through the trucks. Firefighters donned bunker gear.
The atmosphere grew more intense as hay bales were ignited inside the cottage. Burning hay is ideal because of the smoke and heat it generates.
“We’ve got your back,” firefighters assured me prior to the drill.
Minutes later, the cottage door opened, and thick smoke billowed out.
“Go! Go! Go!” yelled firefighters in the heart-pounding seconds before the assault on the building.
Only murky shadows of firefighters could be seen through the thick smoke.
“Go into this room and let’s see what we have,” one firefighter said.
The hose jerked from the force, and the temperature inside the room skyrocketed as water and fire produced steam.
One by one, each fire in the building was attacked.
In one room, fire taunted as it filled the room.
Firefighters offered encouraging words with every fire addressed.
“You’re doing great, man!” they said. “How are you feeling?”
Tired, hot, scared and jubilant came to mind.
Sure, it was fun, but it also underscored the difficulty and danger of a firefighter’s job.
And that was just a warm-up exercise for what came next: a Rapid Intervention Team rescue — in full gear and blindfolded — through a building to find a downed firefighter and pull him to safety.
Finding the fallen under a debris pile was easy, but using gloved hands while unable to see to loosen straps on his SCBA and other facets of the rescue proved more difficult.
An urge to pull off the gloves and blindfold set in, but this was not an option.
But after several minutes, I managed to pull the fallen firefighter, played by Hudgens, to safety.
Firefighters joked about how long it took to complete the rescue, but Hudgens added that it takes hours of practice for professionals to master the job.
“Guys will wear their gloves while checking their own harnesses just so they can keep in practice of what it feels like,” he said. “It’s not easy, and that is why we do drills all the time.”