My day as a Fairfax County firefighter: I could do that if I were smarter, stronger and braver

November 4, 2013

Macho journalist Tom Jackman takes on and eventually extinguishes a burning car fire, with the help of Lt. Tom Carver (left) of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, during a hands-on training demonstration at the Fairfax fire academy. If Carver had not assisted Jackman with the hose, the journalist likely would have doused the photographer, and the fire would still be burning.  (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

So I had a busy morning recently. After donning a ridiculously heavy firefighter’s outfit, I:

Drilled through a concrete wall to search for missing people;

Inserted a camera through the wall to search for said people;

Used a “jaws of life” tool to start prying the door off of an old Mercury;

Used a powerful cutting tool to chomp through two steel hinges of the Mercury’s door;

Hosed down a burning car;

Extinguished a hot fire inside a windowless room;

Smashed through a steel door;

Rode 10 stories to the full extension of a fire engine’s ladder, then;

Used that ladder’s hose on the third floor of a building;

And that was all by noon. Then it was time for lunch.

It was all great hands-on fun, courtesy of the Fairfax Fire and Rescue Department, and it was incredibly educational.  Educational in the sense that it’s amazing how much technical and scientific information firefighters have to master these days, and that was mostly in the stuff we didn’t have to execute.

Fairfax County firefighters, all of whom are trained emergency medical technicians and many of whom are paramedics, work to save "Sim Man," who can be programmed to replicate a variety of human trauma. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)
Fairfax County firefighters, all of whom are trained emergency medical technicians and many of whom are paramedics, work to save “Sim Man,” who can be programmed to replicate a variety of human traumas. (Tom Jackman/The Washington Post)

The fire department, under new Chief Richard Bowers, offered journalists a taste of life while wearing 50 to 70 pounds of protective gear plus a compressed-air tank, which I politely declined. And while we were receiving our initial briefing, the lifelike dummy “Sim Man” collapsed at the back of the room. Sim Man has a functioning heart and lungs, pupils that dilate and an arm which can accept medication intravenously. The chief did not ask the journalists to resuscitate him. Instead, a team of actual paramedics came in and began serious work on Sim Man, whom I profiled back in 2009. Not very talkative, but a very hard worker. One paramedic asked if anyone had seen what Man was doing before his collapse. I pointed to the nearby table of donuts, which I also had politely declined.

Man seemed to recover at first, according to the electronic monitor, but then he flat-lined. Here, the paramedics revived him with electrical shock, but not with the old-school paddles, the dramatic “CLEAR!” shouts and general fear that someone will get electrocuted. The heart monitor itself can now provide sufficient shock with a couple of pads, and in this case those brought Man back to his former near-life status. But the firefighters — all of whom in Fairfax are at least emergency medical technicians, and many are fully trained medics — gave him carefully measured drugs and were quite experienced in emergency trauma work.

This aspect of a firefighter’s job is the most underappreciated, I’ve always felt: the facts that they have to be well versed in the latest medical developments, stay cool under life-or-death pressure, and that they witness some truly horrific stuff when it comes to car crashes, construction accidents and incidents involving children. Ask them about their experiences sometime, as I did several times the other day, and firefighters invariably wince, pause, and you can see them flashing back to something terrible. They all have stories they’d never tell you. Their commanding officers are on the lookout for signs of post-traumatic stress, and Bowers said the department has mental health professionals on staff.

Another part of the job, which Fairfax County has acquired a certain specialty in, is search and rescue after a disaster. We were given a  jack hammer-type rock drill and told to cut through a three-inch thick slab of concrete. This ain’t as easy as it looks, if it ever looked easy. It has to be done particularly carefully when there might be someone on the other side of a caved-in wall or collapsed building. Once a hole was finally opened, we used a telescoping camera, with lights, a microphone and a speaker on the end, to hunt around for any signs of life.

FAIRFAX, VA - OCTOBER 29:Washington Post writer Tom Jackman, L, works to pry a car's door open as he participates in media hands-on training day, hosted by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department at the Fire and Rescue Academy on day, October 29, 2013, in Fairfax, VA. The activity allows journalists to undertake some of the tasks that firefighters and paramedics have to perform routinely. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Using a powerful “O cutter” tool, the manly reporter cuts through two hinges of a Mercury Grand Marquis to remove the rear door. The amount of time required probably would have cost any actual accident victim their life or limb. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Next came another emergency skill that only firefighters seem to use on a regular basis: tearing apart a car to get to crash victims inside. The “jaws of life” spreader, placed by me (with some, er, help) into the seam where a door meets the frame, worked incredibly well on a 1980s-vintage Mercury Grand Marquis, but it couldn’t get the door open all the way. The high-powered cutting device was needed. And I used the electric “O cutters” to chew through two old-school American-car-thick hinges on the back door and we ripped that baby off. The firefighters ripped it off, actually, while I was staggering from the use of the heavy power tools, which probably took longer than was reasonable to actually save someone’s life or limb.

Now, on to fire. We watched as a semi-tractor trailer fire burned at temperatures of close to 700 degrees. They have thermal imaging devices that determine the heat. Though the firefighters’ coats and pants are three layers thick, they can only endure up to 300 degrees, and then only very briefly. (I kept asking people what the actual outside temperature was, because under those layers, the wool hood and heavy gloves, and the helmet, I had no idea.) The firefighters also wear movement monitors, and if they stop moving for 30 seconds, an alert sounds, notifying others that someone might be down. The journalists were not involved in putting out the trailer fire, which turned into a fiery “back draft” when the trailer doors were reopened after the fire was briefly extinguished. Twice, giant fireballs exploded out of the trailer, to our great fear and amazement.

But the technical knowledge involved in approaching and actually fighting a fire, whether in a trailer, a house or a commercial building, is immense. Firefighters and their officers, when first arriving on scene, have to quickly analyze where the fire might have started (and be hottest), what materials are burning and how best to use water or lack of oxygen to snuff it out. Capt. William Moreland said many fires burn more quickly now than ever before because more plastics are in use, with their more flammable chemical components, leading to “flashover” or full fire engagement of a room or structure in three to six minutes, rather than the previous 15 to 20 minutes. So decisions, informed by experience and science, need to be made fast.

FAIRFAX, VA - OCTOBER 29:Washington Post writer Tom Jackman participates in media hands-on training day, hosted by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department at the Fire and Rescue Academy on day, October 29, 2013, in Fairfax, VA. The activity allows journalists to undertake some of the tasks that firefighters and paramedics have to perform routinely. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
The time-tested technique of watching from a safe distance. A “back draft” fireball erupts from a burning trailer while the timid journalist watches and actual professional firefighters take control.  (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

At the Fairfax fire academy on West Ox Road near Fair Oaks, firefighters constantly train, burn things and study the best ways to attack and extinguish fires. While we were watching several different fires, other firefighters at the academy were examining the Grand Marquis we’d just torn apart with the large power tools, looking at how it was put together and how it might best be disassembled in an emergency.

A blazing car fire, using only a metal mockup of a car and fueled by propane, was next, and gave us the opportunity to play with seriously utilize a high-powered fire hose, spraying 100 gallons per minute. Controlling the nozzle was tricky, and Lt. Tom Carver backed me up. He said two firefighters often are used, one to hold and handle the hose while another does the aiming and spraying. I think he might’ve said that just to make me feel better, though. Carver also helped me put out a propane blaze inside a dark windowless room, making sure I sprayed every inch of the room in addition to the fire to keep it from spreading.

Sometimes just reaching the fire is tough because it’s behind locked doors. Firefighters study types of doors and locking mechanisms, because getting through those doors quickly is key to knocking down a fire. We were presented with a locked steel door, no knob (knobs are often hot during fires) and a wooden beam across the door. Getting various crow bars into the seam of the door and prying that dog open, with complete guidance from two firefighters, was not as hard as it looked. However, again, it probably took so long that an entire building would have imploded around us. Still, I got through.

FAIRFAX, VA - OCTOBER 29:Washington Post writer Tom Jackman, R, lifts himself and firefighter Wade Watson using a fire engine's ladder as Jackman participates in media hands-on training day, hosted by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department at the Fire and Rescue Academy on day, October 29, 2013, in Fairfax, VA. The activity allows journalists to undertake some of the tasks that firefighters and paramedics have to perform routinely. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
The fear-filled reporter Tom Jackman lifts himself and master technician Wade Watson to a fire engine ladder’s full height. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

And what kid person doesn’t want to ride to the top of a long long fire engine’s ladder? Not me no way I am scared to death of heights. So I did that too. We went up to the top of one of the three-story buildings they regularly burn at the academy, and I was ready to shoot some more water. Oh no, we’re going up higher, the master technician Wade Watson told me. Why what is up there I see no real need. So off we soared into the clear blue terrifying death is certain morning, to its full ridiculous when are we going back down height of 100 feet. Sweating profusely I lowered us to the three-story building, aimed some very high-powered water in there (1,000 gallons per minute) by simply pushing some switches and got the hell out of there coolly returned us to glorious beloved safe solid terra firma.

It wasn’t quite noon, but it had been an exhausting, exhilarating morning, and a reminder of another important part of the firefighter’s job: physical training. They’ve simply got to be in shape to handle all these tasks, and Bowers said that most firefighters’ deaths are caused by heart attacks suffered in the line of duty. His department is stepping up its focus on department health and safety.

I stepped up my focus on extreme rest.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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