By June Hurt
For the last few months, I have had the privilege of working with local attorney Leah Roen, as well as a number of retired and current firefighters, to help raise awareness about the possible effects in Midtown of losing fire trucks and personnel due to city budget cuts. I can already imagine my East Memphis friends rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, June, it’s always about Midtown!”
Well, in this case, to me, it is.
In a city that has historically made almost every “Worst of” list imaginable, the existing fire protection coverage we have now in Midtown is one of the few things Memphis has gotten right. Personally, I have a problem with decisions being made based solely on efficiency studies and strategic business model assessments without considering the individual characteristics of the affected areas, including building type and construction, concentration of schools and high-rises, poverty levels and the number of unoccupied homes. Nowhere else in Memphis would the loss of a truck affect response times more than Downtown and Midtown.
To help give a better idea of the challenges faced by firefighters when they arrive on scene, on May 5, Memphis Fire Fighters Association Local 1784 held its second annual Fire Ops 101. Participants included members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, the Shelby County District Attorney, state representatives, a state senator, members of the media, community activists and business leaders. I was very honored to be invited to participate, and I jumped at the chance to get a taste of “playing” firefighter for a day.
The morning started with a quick lesson on piling on about 55 pounds of gear, after which we were broken into groups and paired with wranglers, who would make sure we didn’t do anything stupid. I was pleased to meet and work with District 83 Tennessee Rep. Mark White, City Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, District Attorney General Amy Weirich and WMC-TV Chopper 5 Pilot Craig Piowaty.
It goes without saying that the gear was heavy and hot as hell. We were fortunate that the outside temperature never rose above the low 90s, and the firefighters worked tirelessly to keep us hydrated and gave us tips for cooling off while teaching us to quickly get in and out of our gear. It had to be amusing to see the lot of us after an exercise — a surreal collection of panting, human sweat sprinklers sitting around with our turnout pants around our ankles. I’ve never seen a group of people so eager to take their pants off in public — not even at Barbecue Fest.
Each group rotated through a series of stations where we were instructed to perform a routine function. I was ridiculously excited to get to my first station, where we got to use the Jaws of Life to tear a car apart. Now I know that the point was to extract a victim from a damaged vehicle, but in my head, I felt like a destructive child given permission to destroy anything in my path. The Jaws of Life were heavy, but pretty easy to use, and I giggled a little when they guided me in ripping the door away from the frame like it was paper mache. However, I was promptly dragged back down to earth by a voice behind me that said, “I’m a hysterical mother screaming and pleading with you to get her child out of that car. The engine has been on fire for a few minutes and you were delayed because you were the third responder and came from halfway across town.”
I thought back to that coverage map from the public meetings, and the reality set in. A couple of extra minutes can mean life and death.
Our group’s next stop was putting out a vehicle fire with the water hose. Time to experience the fire up close and personal! I asked for help getting my oxygen mask on, and was promptly told that I can’t have oxygen. “Well, why the hell not?”
The nearest wrangler laughed and said, “Because oxygen is flammable and you will blow yourself up. That’s just air in those tanks. Rookie.” I knew that.
Since this was the first time we would be exposed to actual fire, every inch of our bodies had to be protected. About five seconds after I got everything on and working, my body temperature skyrocketed and I could feel my heart pounding. We all lumbered over to the engine and watched excitedly while they got the hose ready to use. I jumped at the chance to go first, and I think I handled the hose well for my first time. (Those who know me best, feel free to insert applicable inappropriate comment here.) I then heard a loud pop as we turned to face a multicolored pickup engulfed in a huge fireball. “Yeah, baby!” I yelled as we drug the hose to the side of the truck.
One of our wranglers instructed me to open it up slowly to get the feel of the pressure, then to “get in there.” Sounds easy enough, I thought. So I opened the hose and directed the water to the passenger-side window.
“Nah! You’re too far away! You gotta get in there!” our wrangler yelled as he shoved me closer to the truck.. I was engulfed in a cloud of thick smoke as I pointed the hose all around the cab. I was so hot that I literally felt like I was on fire myself. “Come on! You got burning bodies in there! Get waaaay in there!”
I glanced over and noticed that my wrangler seemed completely oblivious to the flames that were actually touching his coat sleeve. Good to know the gear works. We moved around some more to put the fire out in the engine, and I was then able to hand off the nozzle to someone else.
As I stepped back to watch, I was panting like a dog and started to get a little dizzy. I shifted my weight back and forth for a couple of minutes and realized that I needed to get this stuff off before I passed out or threw up in my mask. Luckily, the fire was out quickly, so it was time to peel off the gear. I drank at least two bottles of water and poured one over my head. For a few minutes I could barely move. I asked the nearest firefighter how they manage to make it back in the trucks so fast after a fire, and why we don’t see half-dressed firefighters just laying in people’s yards. He just laughed and put another cold rag on my neck.
Our next exercise involved going into a smoke-filled building, climbing three flights of stairs, crawling around a flame-filled room, then exiting the building. When I emerged from the smoke, I discovered that I was still three stories up and I was facing an extended truck ladder. At that moment, I realized that my terrifying fear of heights was overshadowed by the fear of going back through that building again, and down the ladder I went. Good to know.
In the final exercise, we were told to crawl into the building, follow the left wall into the next room, find an unconscious victim, and bring said victim outside to begin CPR. I hate to admit that in my exhausted state I only really paid attention to the first thing they said and upon entering the first room, I was shocked to find myself completely blind and unable to hear anything.
“@$#&*!” We could be crawling over furniture, someone’s dead dog, a bear trap … who knows what crazy crap people have in their homes these days.
After what seemed like an eternity of crawling up each other’s backsides, we finally located the “victim,” who seemed to be made of lead. We all grabbed whatever we could and started dragging him outside, his head bouncing off the concrete. First thing I heard outside was someone yelling, “We got a head injury!” Oops, sorry, Mr. Dummy. I’m sure that was me dragging you by your ankles.
We dropped the victim and I dropped to my knees to catch my breath. I was immediately pulled back on my feet and told that now we had to start lifesaving procedures. Slightly dizzy and gasping for breath, I said, “I thought that was the paramedics’ job!” I thought wrong. Then began a fumbling frenzy of chest compressions, intubation, IVs and getting our victim in an ambulance. One firefighter looked particularly amused as he closed about eight of us in the ambulance together and muttered something about hoping no one minded tight quarters filled with sweaty people. Ew.
Lesson #1 learned from this exercise: Most firefighters have no way to hear each other in a fire. A few lieutenants have speakers in their masks, but the budget hasn’t allowed everyone else to get them yet.
Lesson #2: Since they can’t hear much, they go into these fires blind and have to rely on the known habits of the other firefighters to find each other and get the victims out. Removing trucks from a station and dispersing those firefighters to other stations means that they have to spend months learning the habits of their new crew, which can delay a rescue.
Lesson #3: Since 1991, all new firefighters are required to be certified as EMTs and must complete paramedic training within three years of joining the department. Pretty impressive.
Overall, it was an awesome day and we all learned a lot about what our firefighters go through every day. The media kept running stories about firefighters being concerned about losing their jobs and this could not be farther from the truth. The main thing that I learned from the day was that the firefighters are concerned with budget cuts affecting response times, which could cost lives. No firefighters are going to lose their jobs, but instead they will be transferred and fewer might be hired in the future.
I encourage anyone interested in learning the effects of these cuts to go visit your local firehouse and ask questions. In these tough economic times we have to make sacrifices, but the last thing that should be cut should be anything affecting public safety.