After the disastrous week three with hose drills I made a vow to myself that I would put all my energy into week four. Remember, I publicly proclaimed I was all into Citizen’s Fire Academy, I can’t let all of you down! But yet again, Monday evening rolled around and I had to convince myself it was a good idea to go. But, it’s just like going to the gym. When class was over, I was proud of myself for completing another week and going full force with our drills.
Week four was all about being put on air and doing search and rescue drills in full gear and with the air pack…with little to no ability to see.
There’s a few things to know about the air pack and mask. They are not tailored to fit you. An air pack looks the same for a 6 foot tall, 135 pound person (me) or a 5′ 3″ 170 pound person. Same with the air mask. It doesn’t matter your head size or shape, they are all the same. The air packs are heavy, bulky and uncomfortable. I recently went on a hiking trip in the Grand Canyon with a hiking pack and wore a big hole in my skin from my pack. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I would rather go through that experience than don the air pack. It’s simply that it’s uncomfortable but you have to wear it all the time. It’s like having a toddler on your back that is squirming around. I should say though, I’m sure you get used to it. I’m sure that after some time it feels natural and you might feel naked without it.
The mask is another story. It suctions to your face and connects to the air pack. This is how you breathe. There is an entire step by step process to put it on and hook it up. The numerous buttons and switches and gauges felt like mission control of a space ship. When you go on air, oxygen flows into the mask and you can hear yourself breathe. This was not the part that bothered me, though I can see how it would be cause for a freak out. My mask kept losing suction to my face, and when that happens, it’s like an air tunnel of loud air in your mask. Again, it just takes getting used to. But for the time being, it’s about getting comfortable being uncomfortable.
Next, we got timed getting into full gear and on air. For reference, the West Des Moines firefighters must do it in 90 seconds. That means pulling on boots, pants, jacket, mask, hood, helmet, gloves, your air pack and turning it on. I took…6 minutes. And that was with someone helping me figure out hooking up my air pack. #strugglebus. Practice makes perfect right?
I feel like the next part should come with a warning. This MIGHT be triggering for people. For the hardest drill of the evening we went to one of the training buildings in full gear. Then, black masks were placed over our masks so we could not see. This experience was an odd mixture of sensory overload but also sensory deprivation. I could feel the heavy clothes on my body and the air pack on my hips and shoulders. I could hear and feel my breath in and out from being on air. I could hear everything going on around me in much detail. But I could not see, and taking that one sense away in a new environment can be panic-inducing. However, you can hear your breath. As my breath quickened in panic, it was so loud and evident to me that I used it as a calming sound. Three breaths in. Three breaths out.
We then went into a room with an obstacle course set up to mimic what a firefighter might enter at a burning house. There was a firefighter with me the whole time, Brandon. At the beginning of the course, Brandon asked me my name. I recalled someone telling me that you were in less danger with a stranger if you told them your entire name. So in pure panic, I yelled at Brandon, “RACHEL MAUREEN PETERSON!”
Brandon then told me to get down on my hands and knees, find the hose line and follow that through the maze. We were instructed to use our hands to feel up, down, right and left to feel what was coming ahead of us. As I followed the hose and fearfully crawled, I could feel things hitting me left and right and things above my head forcing me to get down on my belly and scoot through a low hanging beam. Then there were wires that I could feel and kept getting caught on. Brandon told me to lay down, get on my side, and hold my right hand up to clear the wires. Ok, Brandon, I’ll get right on that. I’m pretty sure he helped me by holding the wires up so I could clear them.
I went through this obstacle course with zero sight for what felt like 30 minutes. I was drenched in sweat by the end. I had gone through most of my air pack. I was flustered but also in awe of making it through these obstacles. And never once did I go into a full blown panic attack (there was once I was stuck in a tube that I was close though). When all was said and done, Brandon helped me take off my mask and told me to look at what the course was.
You guys. It was the size of a small New York studio apartment. It was SO small. I don’t actually know how long it took me to get through, maybe 10 minutes. It was shocking to see how large the room seemed without the sense of sight. Our trainers did say that they train with black out masks so they can train for worst case scenario. It tends to be rare that they cannot see anything when they go to a fire.
I’m going to let you in on a secret motivator for Olivia and I to get through each class. It’s Taco John’s. Yes, greasy burritos and nachos motivate us to fight fires. You see, the theme of week four was about following your partner or fire hose or webbing to get in and out of the fire. It’s like following breadcrumbs. You always have someone or something to follow to know your way out of a fire. But for Olivia and I, it was following a trail of potato oles. Each drill led us closer to dipping deep fried potato bites into fake nacho cheese. Whatever gets us through the night!