Every month, firefighters train to rescue residents from burning homes, free crash victims trapped in mangled cars and provide aid to people suffering medical emergencies. This week, firefighters from the region gathered at Ceres Fire Station 3 to learn how to save themselves.
They freed themselves from a mess of wires, bailed headfirst out a second-story window, used water hoses as climbing ropes and blindly made their way through obstacles – all exercises based on real-life scenarios in which fellow firefighters died in the line of duty.
“We are not here to Monday-morning-quarterback the fallen, but we want to honor their legacy and their service by learning from what happened,” said master instructor Fred Barbosa, a captain with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
The Ceres Fire Department recently received an $80,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security that pays for the equipment, trailer and instructors, said Ceres Battalion Chief Rich Scola. Firefighters who complete the course this week will become trainers themselves and return to their respective agencies to teach the techniques to their colleagues.
As the grant recipient, Ceres owns a trailer that converts into a simulated two-story building and training equipment, but will loan it to other agencies.
While the exercises are very physical, Scola said the course taps into the psychological elements of being of an emergency situation.
“You are already in sensory overload, you are taxed, and that is the physiological part. As instructors, we have to give them tools (for) when their student is spinning out of control, how to reel them back in,” Barbosa said.
Painted on all the training equipment were firefighters’ dates of death and information about the incident for which each piece of equipment was modeled.
One case study involved a New York City firefighter who died during a warehouse fire. He was 25 feet from the door and his oxygen tank was more than a quarter full.
“He had ripped his face-piece off, he had a flashlight and he had one glove off and he was facing the direction of the exit but didn’t make it,” Barbosa said. “He panicked, we believe. ... Of course, we can only guess at this point.”
Another firefighter died in a Memphis high-rise apartment when he got tangled in television cables just 9 feet from the exit. During the Ceres training, firefighters re-created the situation by crawling through a narrow box of wires, using their tools to free themselves.
They practiced a “ladder bailout” technique in which they went headfirst out a two-story window but turned themselves around by hooking an arm through a ladder rung and grasping a side rail with their other to upright themselves by swinging their legs to the side.
They had to make their way to a sounding alarm and untangle an oxygen pack without eyesight.
Thursday, they will put all their new skills to use in a large maze, with zero visibility and a 30-minute oxygen tank that usually lasts only 12 minutes in a high-stress, high-exertion situation.
“A big component of the program is mental,” Barbosa said. “We take them right to the edge and we are teaching them simultaneously how to recognize it and how to address it.”
The firefighters learned to remain calm when trapped, be aware of their surroundings, retrace their steps and effectively relay that information to a battalion chief. Just as importantly, they learned when to ask for help.
Barbosa said for too long, calling “mayday” was a sign of weakness, but the culture is changing.
“Before, no one would call mayday because it meant you didn’t know your job, it meant you’re inept, it meant you did something you weren’t supposed to do,” he said. “It’s much more accepted now. I would rather joke about it at the table the next morning than get carried by six of my co-workers.”
AT A GLANCE
The Ceres Fire Department was awarded an $80,000 grant by the Department of Homeland Security to teach firefighters how to become trainers in techniques to save themselves in emergency situations.
The grant pays for equipment, a trailer that converts into a simulated two-story building, and instructors who are participating in a weeklong course at Ceres Fire Station 3 this week.
Twenty-four students from Oakland Fire, Sacramento Fire, Ceres Fire, Modesto Fire, Patterson Fire, Manteca Fire and Stanislaus Consolidated are participating in the class.
The instructors are from Sacramento Fire, Los Angeles City Fire, Los Angeles County Fire, Phoenix Fire, Libertyville (Ill.) Fire and Prince Georges County Fire in Maryland.