Our homework for our last class day — public safety day — of Leadership Newton County, was to select a branch of city or county public safety and spend a day with them learning about what they do.
Working at the newspaper, I read about dumb and violent criminals in our county all the time and knew that riding along with a sheriff’s deputy or city police officer was not for me. Some folks who have previously been through the class said that the Covington Fire Department really pulled out all the stops on this day, and if I really wanted to challenge myself, I should go visit Chief Don Floyd and the boys over on Pace Street.
My husband is training to be an EMT and would eventually like to join a fire department, so I wanted to see what kinds of things he would encounter daily were he employed as a firefighter.
Only classmate Anjela Ellis of BB&T and I were brave enough to tackle CFD day on Wednesday. We had to be there at 8 a.m. We were taking a modified physical agility test that firefighters must pass if they want to work for the city department. The crew on duty set up almost the entire course for us girls and then had to help us pick up ladders and drag a dummy to safety.
The grueling course, which starts with the applicant in full firefighter garb (ours was lightened significantly, of course) carrying a hose and tool bag up and down a flight of stairs three times. Different stations have applicants display their skill at chopping motions, dragging a hose a certain distance, hoisting a ladder and other proficiencies a firefighter should have. Then came the dreaded dummy — all 185 pounds of him. I probably could have taken the entire seven minutes you must pass the test in just dragging that stupid dummy to safety. However, they like you to pick it up as much as you can so as not to chap the poor fellow’s hind end. This was something I flat out couldn’t do, so two guys (bless their hearts) grabbed his sides and we pulled him together. By this point, the boys needed to turn a hose on my legs because they were burning at about four alarms.
The last section of the course has the participant put on a black out mask and crawl on hands and knees while keeping one hand on a length of hose. Not normally claustrophobic, once the black out mask was on me, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and had to have them take it off for a moment while I sucked in air like it was going out of style. I was determined to finish though, so they strapped me back into darkness and I headed toward the finish.
During the entire length of the course all the guys were shouting words of encouragement at Anjela and me. "C’mon girl, you can do it. Just 15 more feet. You’re doing great. Keep pushing, you’re almost there." I would never have been able to finish had it not been for them coaxing me to fight the pain and exhaustion.
People that pass the full test in seven minutes are strong of body, but more importantly of mind. Residents of Covington should rest easier knowing their lives are in capable hands.
After the test, Anjela and I needed a break. We rode along on two calls — both of them medics. The first call, we beat the EMS truck there. On the second one, EMS beat us by a few seconds. Both times the engines roared up to the scene less than five minutes after receiving the call from dispatch. It was a thrill to ride in the truck with sirens blazing, but more of a thrill to see the guys bring an unresponsive elderly woman back to consciousness. I added a lot of new people to my prayer list Wednesday.
Then came the ultimate test of mental strength — climbing the Beast. The Beast is an engine with an aerial ladder that extends to a bit over 100 feet. The strapped us into a harness and told us to climb to the bucket on top of the ladder. Let me just say that climbing 100-feet in the air at a 75-degree angle feels like you are climbing straight up. I just kept repeating in my head, "climb, climb, climb." If you looked down you would get scared and if you looked up the clouds passing overhead would make you feel like the ladder was swaying. So, just focused on the next rung I needed to grab.
In the bucket I could see all of Covington as well as the tremendous yellow dust clouds and dust devils of pollen swirling around the city. I was truly amazing and I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest. Going down was a bit harder than going up because you naturally want to look down to see where you are placing your foot. Looking down is inadvisable.
After lunch we suited up and got ready to enter the burn trailer behind station one. This time we were in full firefighter gear, which was heavy and hot even outside of the burn trailer in the cool spring breeze. My oxygen mask was so tight that it was hard to blink.
The burn trailer is essentially a cargo trailer like you would see on a ship or train, with an emergency exit built into the side. A pile of lumber is set on fire at one end of the trailer and mostly used for firefighter training — they are always practicing drills of some sort. Wet hay is added to generate ample smoke. We sat about 15 to 20 feet away from the fire. On the ground it was about 400-600 degrees. On the ceiling it’s like the sun. We raised our hands to feel the difference in heat. I was happy to stay near the ground.
The entire time inside, Captain Tony Smith was asking if we were OK and explaining how the fire is a living breathing thing looking for oxygen. At first the fire climbed toward the ceiling and then rolled along the ceiling toward the double doors searching for air. I was never happier than when I saw the hose blast the fire down to embers. However, the steam made it temporarily hotter in the trailer. Crawling out of the trailer felt like crawling out of a mine shaft — sweet daylight and a gentle breeze.
So as not to drastically change our body temperatures we undressed slowly and rehydrated with Swinchers — highly concentrated magic, all you have to do is add water. My T-shirt and jeans were thoroughly soaked with sweat.
This day felt like a right of passage, a spirit walk on which I found pieces of me that I didn’t know existed. There are few showers and sleeps of my life that I would rate as good as or better than those I had Wednesday evening.
Most importantly I gained a great appreciation for all who dedicate themselves to the safety of others, who will wake and dress in the middle of the night at a moment’s notice, who leap into waves of flames with resolve I will never truly understand.
On April 22, we will visit the CFD with the rest of the class as well as other public safety departments around the city and county. Our class is planning a special community service project during the last week of April, so continue to read the paper or CovNews.com for updates on that.
Jennifer T. Long is editor of The Covington News and a member of the 2009-2010 class of Leadership Newton County, which is sponsored by the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (678) 750-5011.