I’m going to admit that I’m a police, fire and medical drama TV junkie. Chicago Fire, 9-1-1, Grey’s Anatomy and NYPD Blue (thanks dad for starting me early with that show!) are on constant rotation on my Hulu and Netflix accounts. One could say I’m a bit of an expert then in these fields. Basically if someone needs an emergency tracheotomy in a restaurant, I can channel my inner Meredith Grey and do it with a straw. Maybe…
So, when Olivia told me I was attending West Des Moines’ Citizen’s Fire Academy, I could only think of various scenarios where I would be sliding down a fire pole, whizzing around the streets of Des Moines in a shiny red fire truck and running into burning buildings in slow-motion with my hair perfectly coiffed. It was my secret dream come true.
But in reality, I have little knowledge of the first responders culture. As the newest member of the YFFR Operations Team, I need to learn, and want to learn, about life as a firefighter. What does it actually mean to be a firefighter? What does it take to run into a fire? it was nearly impossible to turn the opportunity down. And, maybe I would meet my firefighter Prince Charming??
I walked into the first day of class only knowing I was dedicating nine Monday’s of my life to academy and I would get a free t-shirt out of this ordeal. Plus, I was armed with the knowledge from my extensive binge-watching skills. Remember, I’m practically an expert in the medical and fire fields.
During the first class, I found myself thinking about my interactions with firefighters in my short 26 years of life, and I could only think of a few. Each interaction happened during my elementary days. We all remember the firefighter coming in to visit, dressed in full gear. He told us to stop, drop and roll. He told us to remind our parents to change the smoke detector batteries. He told us not to be scared of him if our house was on fire.
That’s it. That’s my only interaction. And I think this rings true for much of the population. Even though I’m not a criminal, I’ve had more interactions with the police. (Just speeding tickets!) But firefighters are this invisible force. I know they’re working. I will hear sirens in the distance occasionally. But I never see firefighters. Maybe it’s my curious nature. Maybe it’s my competitive drive. But this realization was enough to convince me that this nine week program was going to be worth it. I really did want to know more and immerse myself in the firefighter culture. And I wasn’t going to half-ass it. Oh no, I was going to be the champion of Citizen’s Fire Academy.
Then came week two. We got our gear, learned how to strap, buckle, velcro and hook together these behemoth pieces of clothing, and covered our bodies from head to toe. And then things got real.
Enter the CPAT Test. This is the Candidate Physical Abilities test. This is what firefighters have to pass in order to even apply for a job. The real test is in full gear, with 75 pounds of weight added on top of that. It’s a pass/fail test with a time limit of 10 minutes and 20 seconds.
Did I mention I’m a runner? I consider myself to be in great shape. The simulated CPAT we performed was a big slap of reality. Note the word simulated. It wasn’t even the real thing and I broke out in a sweat akin to finishing a 10k race. The series of tests were very similar to tasks you would perform as a firefighter. Dragging a 175 pound dummy, carrying heavy gear, using an axe to break open a door, pulling a fire hose, going through a pitch black maze; they directly related to real skills you need to master.
All these tests use muscles I never need to work to perform my regular athletic tasks. I have NO grip strength. My agility is that of a new-born giraffe learning how to walk, and my upper body strength is nonexistent. Despite all of this, I did it all. I finished; albeit not in the 10:20 time limit, but I did every single task, and that’s something I’m very proud of.
What impressed me the most was the support of the firefighters. Each class member had a firefighter walking around with us during the test and encouraging us during each task. Their support and camaraderie helped each of us complete the test to the best of our abilities.
I’m anxiously awaiting what 7 more weeks of training will bring. I know there will be lots of moments that force me to step outside of my comfort zone. There will be times where my mental strength will matter more than my physical strength. I highly doubt I’ll end the course wanting to be a firefighter, but I already have much more knowledge of the career and an immense amount of respect for anyone in this field.