Work Experience 11: Firefighter
When I first started my ‘40 work experiences at the age of 40’ adventure, I wrote a list of jobs I’d really like to try and firefighting was one of them. I thought if I was lucky I might be able to go to a fire station, have a look in a fire truck and maybe hold a hose. A bit like what kids get to experience when they are in Kindy. Never in a million years did I expect to be suited up as a firefighter sitting in a container with a real fire! Thanks so much to my friend Randall who arranged for me to go to the Tactical Training Unit Live Fire Campus in Brisbane, followed by a day at the Ripley Fire Station. As an extra bonus, Randall’s wife Heather was able to join me as a ‘recruit’ and we got a taste of what being a firefighter was really like. Not surprisingly it was very HOT, and I gained an even greater appreciation for our firies than I already had. It’s a job that’s definitely not for the faint hearted.
What did I do?
Tactical Training Live Fire Campus
The live fire training facility at the Queensland Combined Emergency Services Academy provides realistic fire training in a safe environment. Training props simulate a variety of potential fire environments such as buildings, residential dwellings, light industry and industrial processes. These simulations allow trainees to safely view and participate in the control of fires in various learning environments.
When we arrived we went straight to a big ‘wardrobe’ to select our uniform (Personal Protective Equipment) for the day – an orange jumpsuit, fire resistant pants and jacket, big black boots, fire resistant gloves, flash hood and helmet.
After dressing in the jumpsuit and boots, Randall explained thoroughly how to use the Breathing Apparatus (BA), a very important piece of equipment for firefighters which provides breathable air. He explained how to check whether each component of the BA is in working order including the straps, guage, valves, hoses, seals, facemask, visor, pneumatic system (air pressure and flow), and warning whistle which indicates when the air supply is running low. Each BA is checked twice a day, at the start of every shift.
Once we had an understanding of how the BA worked, it was time to put it on. We turned the air on at the back, then put the mask on and tightened it, taking a deep first breath to get the air flowing. It’s possible to speak to each other with the BA on as it has a speech diaphragm, but as expected our voices were a bit distorted. My breathing sounded a bit like Darth Vader’s if you can imagine it.
We went for a walk around the live fire campus to get used to wearing the gear and breathing through the BA. Randall pointed out a few of the different training areas. We entered an area which has a number of gas pipes running throughout it over a couple of floors. I imagine it’d be extremely scary (and hot) to extinguish the gas fire they create here, as you’d have to get right up close to the blasting fire to stop the flow of gas at its source. We also climbed onto a makeshift ‘ship’ where Randall explained they used to put a fire at the bottom of a steep internal stairwell (more like a ladder) that recruits would have to extinguish. That one would’ve been pretty scary too!
As we were walking we were reminded to frequently check the guage on our BA’s to ensure we still had plenty of air. We returned to the main ‘shed’ after about 20 minutes, where we took off the BA and sat down to cool off and rehydrate.
After a very informative lesson and demonstration of how fires ignite using a Bang Box, we had the opportunity to watch some of the firefighters light and then extinguish an Enersol 55 fire out in the yard. Lighting fires and blowing things up is apparently a perk of the job!
it was time to get dressed for our first real fire experience. Our BA tanks had been refilled and the whole system rechecked before we used them again (very important because I quite like breathing!). Randall said that when they are alerted to a fire at the station they need to have all of their PPE on and be in the fire truck within two minutes. In Queensland it’s promised that a fire truck will be in attendance of a fire within 14 minutes of a call being made (90% of the time), so the firefighters need to be in their gear, in the truck and on their way extremely quickly. These guys have obviously practiced! After struggling to get my gloves on (perhaps a larger size would’ve helped) I was finally dressed with the BA on my back and we were ready to go!
Randall led Heather and I into a big metal building that was meant to replicate a double-storey house. We went through a downstairs door, up a flight of stairs, and were left sitting in a back room while two of the firefighters ignited wet lucerne in a couple of large drums. The idea in this case was not to create flames but to create a huge amount of smoke. It wasn’t long before the whole room and entire building were filled with it. Our task was to find our way out! Randall was nearby with a thermal imaging camera so I felt reassured knowing he was there. Somewhere. He wouldn’t let anything bad happen to us (again I was reminded how lucky I was to have his wife with me). I honestly couldn’t see a thing! Not even my own hand in front of my face. It was a bit freaky I have to admit, and there was no way I’d let Heather go. I was more than happy for her to lead the way! We shuffled very slowly and carefully, hands outstretched to feel along the way. We had some idea of which direction to go as we entered the building before it was smoke-filled. But we were so disorientated. After a bit of time shuffling in a forward direction, Heather led us through a doorway. When she realised it was a cupboard, she turned around (with me behind her) and headed straight back into the room we’d come from. We had NO idea which way to go. Randall spoke for the first time to let us know we were back to where we’d started, then led us to the top of the stairs. Honestly, how do firefighters not fall down stairs all the time? Maybe they do? It was only because my hand was placed on the handrail that I could feel my way down, descending backwards one step after another.
Once we were downstairs I thought we might have more of a chance of seeing or finding our way out, but it was still just a guessing game. We ran our hands along walls trying to find a door handle. It was only when Randall suggested laying on the floor and looking for light that I remembered the ‘Get down low and Go! Go! Go!’ fire safety advertisement from when I was a little girl. The relief I felt from seeing a thin strip of light under the doorway was huge! I crawled over, felt for the handle and opened the door to reveal the outside world once again.
We again returned to the shed to cool down, drink some more water and sneak in a quick coffee. It’s amazing just how hot it is wearing the PPE and using the BA. I was red-faced and sweaty! While we did this some of the guys checked the BA again and replaced the near-empty air canisters with full ones.
The last and most exciting part of the day was when we went into a container with particle board as the fuel source, the equivalent of a two-seater sofa. Before we put our PPE and BA on again, we went into the container so Randall could give us a detailed description of what we would experience. It was really exciting! I felt extremely safe because not only would Randall be sitting beside us with a fire hose, there would be another firefighter with us in the container and a third just outside. In any unusual or emergency situation, a vent in the roof and the rear door can be opened immediately so heat can escape very quickly and anyone inside can get out.
Returning to the container after getting dressed (again) in the PPE and BA, we sat on the brick floor in the centre of the container while Randall ignited the fire. We watched the fuel slowly light up and smoke start to fill the room from the top down. There were two distinct layers of smoke at the beginning. It was amazing to see water dripping down the sides of the metal container as it heated up. As the fire grew larger, the smoke became denser and lowered to within reach above our heads. In fact, it was so thick I was able to reach up and grab a handful of smoke and throw it like a ball. Incredible! Once the fire was well developed, it was beautiful to see the fire beginning to stretch across the ceiling above us towards the back of the container. This was caused by the smoke itself catching fire. It’s hard to describe what it looked like, but it was almost like firey, fluffy, moving orange and red clouds dancing across the ceiling. It was mesmerising. And it was getting very hot! We had to keep moving from side to side to ensure our skin didn’t burn through the PPE. The temperature was about 100°C on the ground and on the ceiling it would’ve been around 700-800°C. In other words, it’d be too dangerous to stand up! At different stages Randall lobbed ‘bombs’ into the fire to make it larger, and at other times he gave the fire a short, sharp squirt of the hose to keep it at bay. I was totally enthralled, at the same time as feeling like my feet were burning in my boots. Eventually Randall extinguished the fire and we exited out the rear of the container.
Wow. That was truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced in my life. Thanks to Randall and the amazing team at Live Fire for looking after us for the day.
Ripley Fire Station
I also had the opportunity to spend time at Ripley Fire Station, a relatively new station located in Ipswich. At 7am the day crew kicked off their shift. First up they all put their turnout gear (firefighting uniforms) into position inside the fire trucks, so they’d be ready to go in an emergency.
I watched on as the start of shift checks were done. During these checks every piece of equipment in the trucks will have either a visual or physical test. I learnt a lot about what is stored in the truck and what it does. Three different types of hose, first aid gear, hydraulic tools used for cutting through metal in the case of car accidents, and swift water rescue gear and ropes (in one of the trucks). I sat in the driver’s seat, turned the ignition key and put on the flashing lights.
After that it was time for a coffee! All of the firefighters piled into the trucks with me in the middle of the backseat and off we drove. It’s essential for everyone to stay together and with the truck in case of emergency.
We went back to the station where it was time to film for the Today Show. I was interviewed by Aislin Kriukelis about my 40 40 Experience before having some firefighting fun, re-enacting what would be done in an emergency situation. Firstly, the PA sounded and an announcement made over the speakers detailing where the ‘fire’ was. In a real emergency, a machine would spit out a piece of paper with an address, UBD reference for location, and a description of the emergency. We put on our uniforms, checked the map on the wall, jumped into the fire truck and drove around to the Tactical Training building behind the station. I released the hose and ran towards the ‘fire’ with Ben, who showed me how to spray the hose. It was quite hard work to spray the hose continuously as the water pressure is so high. It wasn’t too bad for a few squirts but I can only imagine how sore your arms and shoulders would be after fighting a fire for 20 minutes or more. The last thing we did for filming was to enter a smoke-filled room (created with a smoke machine) and drag a dummy out. My first rescue!
The afternoon was spent on top of the Tactical Training building doing some vertical rescue practice. After literally being shown the ropes (safety is paramount), I belayed down a wall a couple of times first. Then I had to drop off a ledge that was overhanging the wall by more than a meter and was lowered to the ground. That was an exciting way to finish off the day.
What did I learn?
It was really interesting to learn about the training Fire and Emergency Services people need to undertake in order to fight fires safely and effectively, as well as to attempt rescues in all manner of situations. Not only is a lot of training provided to recruits, it is ongoing.
There are many safety procedures to understand and follow for this job. Learning how to set up and use a BA safely and checking it’s in working order for example, is obviously essential and would take a fair amount of practice.
The ability to work as part of a team is such a critical part of being a firefighter. Their own lives as well as the lives of their colleagues can depend on it. I felt like one of the team both at the training academy and at the station, and appreciate how well I was looked after. As exciting as all of the drills were (seriously, people would pay to do this stuff!) the understanding that everything learned is to be used in an emergency situation is very real. It’s such an incredible service our firefighters provide to the community.
Thanks again to my old and new firefighting friends (and upper management) for allowing me to have such a fantastic experience. I really loved it.
To get some insight into life as a firefighter, read my interview with Randall Appleby here.