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Spending a Day in a Firefighter's Shoes

My firsthand account of Saturday's Fire Ops 101.

I felt the initial swell of panic a few seconds after reaching the landing of the second floor.

I had just trudged up a smoke-filled staircase in full firefighter gear, the while feeding a hose to my nozzleman who was now ahead of me somewhere in the black, sweltering hot darkness of the second floor.

It was only minutes before -- or was it seconds? --  when we were cooling off the first-floor room that contained the fire by spraying water on the area around the flames so as to prevent a flashover.

Now, as my knees inched me closer to the center of the second floor, all I could see in front of me was a black void. It was as if my eyes were glued shut. Complete dark.

At this point, I started to become aware of my short-winded breathing pattern. I took a deep gulp of air from the oxygen tank tied to my back. After a couple breaths, I was able to regain composure. An inspection of the room found no victims. We made our way out of the structure by following the path of the hose on our knees.

The first-floor fire did not have to be extinguished immediately because the blaze was part of an emergency simulation at Fire Ops 101, an annual event held at the Fairfield Regional Fire Training Center that invites town officials and local media to spend a day in a firefighter’s shoes -- or, if you will, boots.

Joining me on Saturday, Oct. 15, was Councilmen Dave Fuller (D-6) and John Dempsey (R-5), who also attended the event in 2010. We were shadowed by Stratford and Fairfield firefighters.

In the simulated structure fire outlined above, four firefighters assisted myself and another reporter. In a real-life situation, though, only two firefighters would enter the building in a similar search and rescue mission, said Stratford firefighter Kevin Fagan.

Fagan said a fire department’s coordinated effort of stomping out a fire is akin to a ballet, with one fire chief orchestrating the entire operation. Everybody has a job to do, he said, and that’s why a minimum number of manpower is so crucial to any fire department.

For example, Fagan said if one or two firefighters are “making the roof,” i.e., searching for the area that is on fire, then a few others are “flying the stick,” i.e., setting the ladder up to cut a hole in the roof to ventilate the smoke. Every engine and every firefighter that comes to the scene has a specific job to perform in putting out the flames, he said.

Fagan said my job in the simulation as the back-up man who fed the hose to the nozzleman is "arguably one of the most important" in the operation. I decided to play it cool and I kept my mild panic attack to myself.

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