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Hot and Heavy – Day in firefighter boots is well worth the sweat

| October 29, 2018 1:00 AM

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Coeur d'Alene Press reporter Brian Walker uses the jaws of life during a vehicle extrication scenario at Coeur d'Alene Fire Department's media day event last Thursday. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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Coeur d'Alene firefighter Chad Matchell, left, helps Coeur d'Alene Press reporter Brian Walker learn how to use a hose before entering a controlled live fire building last Thursday at the Ramsey and Kathleen fire station. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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Firefighters and members of media enter a building to put out a controlled live fire during Coeur d'Alene Fire department's media day last Thursday. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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LOREN BENOIT/Press Press reporter Brian Walker smiles and gives Coeur d’Alene firefighter Chad Matchell a handshake after successfully rescuing two “victims” from a controlled live fire scenario last Thursday at the fire station off Ramsey and Kathleen.

After feeling my way around through darkness and smoke with about 70 pounds of firefighting gear on and an ax in hand, I "rescued" a child from the second floor of a structure.

When I felt the body in a closet and was lugging the youngster from the scene, there was an adrenaline rush that erased all the exhaustion from the effort it took to find the youth.

As a reporter, you get rushes from covering breaking news and then banging out accurate, impactful stories for readers on deadline. However, this rescue at Coeur d'Alene Fire's training facility during the department's Fire Ops 101 program Thursday, which put media and others in firefighter boots for a day, was a newfound satisfaction.

With my trusty guide, firefighter Chad Matchell, backing me up, he painted the picture of how tense it can be feeling your way around on the floor in a house you're not familiar with and filled with blinding smoke.

While my focus was trying to navigate myself along, Matchell was not only doing that, but constantly communicating with his fellow firefighter about what was being found, where the stairs and corners were and pounding on the floor with a Halligan bar to test its durability in the fire.

I can only imagine what rescuing an actual person in a real fire would be like.

As fulfilling as that moment would be, public information officer Craig Etherton gently reminded me that scenario doesn't always play out. The stark reality is there are times when trapped people inside can't be found in time.

A reporter always likes hearing both sides of the story.

I've admired watching local firefighters and paramedics perform their jobs with precision and teamwork at actual scenes, but "masking up" with them gave me a new appreciation for their dedication to save and help others.

In a different exercise, within a minute of crawling my way into a burn room with a hose, I was sweating.

The room with the small demonstration fire maybe reached 400 degrees, a far cry from the 1,200 to 1,500 degrees of an actual scene at "flash over," when everything is igniting at once and burning plastic creates a toxic environment.

Firefighters said melting of their face shields is fairly common.

Thankfully, my less-than-cozy stay in the burn room was almost instantly doused with my hose, which threw 180 gallons of water a minute.

As Matchell told me, "We slayed the dragon!"

The weather was also on my side on this day. Fighting fires in 57-degree weather in October is obviously a luxury compared to doing battle in blazing, blistering summertime. Thanks, firefighters, for not throwing me the real heat.

With all the obstacles crews can face in difficult circumstances, I wondered how Joe Q. Citizen can do his part.

An obvious and immediate answer was to keep hydrants in their neighborhoods clear of overgrown brush and snow.

"If they don't keep hydrants clear, we're going to run out of water really quick," Etherton said.

During the emergency medical scenario, firefighter/paramedic Cody Moore simulated an actual crash scene on U.S. 95 in which an 80-year-old male suffered spinal injuries and was transported to the hospital in an ambulance.

Bad roads, Moore said, caused the accident. You could tell in Moore's eyes that it was one of those proud moments for responders because the man survived.

At the extrication station, operating the "jaws of life" tool to remove a car door made a distinct crunch noise that I won't soon forget and never want to hear from inside a vehicle. Hopefully, that noise will be a personal reminder to drive safe.

You hear about the brotherhood of firefighters that forms from living with and cooking for each other. But that bond is also ever-so-evident with safety steps from the time they're called to action and throwing on their gear to arriving on scene.

With all the different layers of gear and the mad dash to respond on a dime, it's easy to see how something can be easily missed with the dress code, making "buddy checks" paramount all while under the pressure of need for speed.

One minute to get out the door, another minute to be hooked up to air and two to five minutes to be on scene is the goal. And I thought newspaper deadlines were harsh.

With extrications, as tempting as it is for rescuers to want to dive right in to reach the victim inside, ensuring the vehicle is stable first is necessary, firefighter Eric McAuliff said. Injuries to responders on top of injured patients would only compound the situation.

A question we've all wondered about the fire and ambulance service is why the entire cavalry is sent — fire engines also responding when someone is having a heart attack.

It's to be prepared, because responders don't truly know about the entire situation until they arrive on scene and backup help is often needed. Most responders are cross-trained in firefighting and emergency medicine — they are great problem solvers — and about 90 percent of the calls are medic-related.

"It's better to have seven people available during a cardiac arrest or lugging a hose around," Deputy Chief Tom Greif said.

Having now hopped into those boots, I would have to agree.

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When Brian Walker isn't putting out fires — literally — he's a staff writer at the Press.