By Brandi Makuski
I don’t know how they do it.
It’s easy to say that, considering all the accommodations the Plover Fire Dept. made for me. I had no responsibility whatsoever during the Dec. 3 live fire training burn. All I had to do was show up.
The training burn was made possible by the Jerry King Family of Plover, who wanted to remove an older home on their River Dr. property to make way for what Mr. King called “a log home like nothing you’ve ever seen”.
Assistant Fire Chief Ken Voss asked me to stop by PFD a few days early to be “fitted” for my gear. It’s something people probably don’t think about much, but it turns out if your gear doesn’t fit properly, you’re useless — and likely creating more problems — on the scene of an emergency. Even the proper-fitting turnout, consisting of boots, lined pants with suspenders and a jacket, face mask, air tank and helmet, is bulky and awkward. It seems to add a solid 15 pounds of weight to each leg, pushing your body to exert a substantial amount of energy every time you take a step.
The morning of the burn was cold and rainy. Firefighters had set up what’s called a “drop tank” — a 3,000-gallon, collapsible tank made of tarpaulin with a PVC pipe frame, not dissimilar in appearance to a wading pool, used to hold a water supply when there’s no nearby hydrant.
A mobile command center was also on the scene, comprised of a large EMT vehicle and its crew, plenty of bottled water and a healthy spread of donuts and fruit, as well as a heated dish Voss referred to as “chili” (though I questioned his assessment).
In an emergency, turnout gear would be donned by firefighters before they arrive at the scene — they have to put on the whole getup within two minutes to pass their firefighter exam. Sounds easy, right?
But there I was, steadying myself next to a fire dept. truck at 9 AM in 20 degree rainy weather, trying to look cool while contorting myself and jiggling on boots and pants that didn’t fit me exactly right with half the Plover Fire Dept. watching.
Even with Voss’ help, it took me about eight minutes.
I was asked repeatedly if I were claustrophobic; I said no. But only after I pulled on my face mask did it become apparent I had no clear understanding of that word. As Voss and firefighter Adam Rouse helped me walk towards the smoky house, and nearby firefighters hollered words of encouragement, I began to realize I had no real peripheral vision and no ability to touch my face. I tried to push through the discomfort, but I began to panic about 10 feet before the front door of the house, and without any real regard for the cost of the equipment I was wearing, I grabbed at my mask and pulled it from my face.
Instantly I felt like an embarrassed five-year-old, as Voss, Rouse and Chief Mark Deaver all smothered me with “It’s okay; you’re okay, relax,” statements. I mean, really — there were about two dozen firefighters at this scene, all who managed to wear this gear without any apparent problems. My air tank and regulator were working fine — what the hell was wrong with me?
So I collected myself, put my hood and mask back on and made my way inside the building behind Voss. He guided me into a very smoky room where an ignition team (that’s really what they’re called) was working on getting a good fire going, using old, wood pallets and hay.
Suddenly, all of my senses were overwhelmed at once. All I could think was, “Oh my God; I was inside a burning building.”
I lasted about 90 seconds in the burn room before I turned to Voss and said repeatedly, “I have to go.”
For the second time in just a few minutes, Voss and Rouse once again led me several feet from the front door and helped remove my mask. I wasn’t hysterical, but my insides were certainly screaming. It’s not natural for a human being to stand inside a burning house.
So, strike two.
At this point I became angry with myself. These guys went out of their way to make room for me, to set aside some $2,000 worth of gear for me, to put themselves and their department (and conceivably, the entire financial security of Plover) on the line so I could have an experience worth writing about — and they didn’t have to. So I was damn sure going to hit that finish line.
After Deaver increased my regulator’s oxygen output, I re-entered the home and positioned myself against a wall. I expected to smell at least some smoke through my mask; I didn’t. I expected to feel the heat of the fire through my turnout; I did, but only after a several moments of standing in the same room a 10-foot fire — which, according to Voss’ thermal camera, hit almost 400 degrees.
Once I got over the whole “I should be running from the house” feeling, I noticed the flames hit the ceiling and sort of roll across the paint and wood. It was actually kind of beautiful.
After several minutes of watching the fire and wiping condensation from the outside of my mask, the room became as dark as a coal mine. Following Voss’ instruction, I dropped to my knees and crawled out of the home. It gave a whole new meaning to “stop, drop and roll” — the bottom half of the room was not only far cooler, but had greatly-increased visibility. Once I was on my knees, only then could I appreciate the difficulty these men and woman had navigating something so akin to the Mutara Nebula.
After we exited the home, Voss took my air pack, then led me to the mobile command vehicle, where I underwent a basic medical exam, known as “rehab”, consisting of a blood pressure and blood oxygen check.
“Every firefighter does this; if the EMT’s say you don’t go back in, then you don’t go back in,” Voss said.
I was medically cleared and given a bottle of water — also standard operating procedure. But my time in the burning house was over. I spent the next few hours taking photos of the house in its various stages of turning to ash.
This reporter is not a fan of endorsements in any fashion. But smaller departments, like those in Plover, Stevens Point, Hull, Park Ridge, Amherst, etc., fight the same fires as larger departments. They need the same training. They require good equipment that meets high standards. Their firefighting requires the same level of dedication, passion and skill as those working in a major metropolitan area.
They are willing to run inside a burning building when their sense of survival tells them not to — and every one of them deserves every ounce of the community’s support, if for no other reason than that.