By Gary Massaro
The smoke didn’t smell as bad as cheap perfume, not as good as a cheap cigar.
But it was so thick that the only way you could see your shoes was to hold your flashlight 6 inches above.
So you couldn’t see. But you could hear – people breathing – not normal gulps, but like a machine was pumping air into their lungs, firefighters talking, mainly about where to search but also about how much air was left in their tanks.
Firefighter Mike Blackburn breathes clean air after a training exercise designed to reinforce good use of air in the tank on his back.
And that was the purpose of the training exercise last week – “air management,” South Metro Fire Recue Autohority officials billed it.
Since South Metro merged with Parker last year, some firefighters have been equipped with a new – for them – air gauge inside their masks. The old way was to check a gauge dangling from a clasp, usually on the right shoulder.
By checking through the mask at a lighted display, firefighters can save time because they’re looking straight ahead instead of glancing down at the shoulder gauge.
The exercise was also a way to reinforce that firefighters should be out of the building by the time an alarm starts to vibrate their facemask.
In the past, firefighters would stay until the last second, maybe longer, taking their masks off just outside or just before they got outside a building.
“After a fire is out, products of combustion – carbon monoxide, cyanide – still hang out,” said Lt. Heidi Simon, a training officer. “We want our firefighters to come out with air in their tanks, we want them to still have a reserve.”
It’s not just because of lingering killer fumes. If firefighters find their way out blocked and are forced to find another exit, they must have enough air in their tanks to make it out safely on the alternate route.
“We’re trying to teach them to come out before anything goes wrong,” said Andy Lyon, South Metro Fire Authority spokesman.
In a few months, all the district’s 300 firefighters will go through the training.
This particular exercise was done at a vacant motel – now for sale – off South Quebec Street and East Belleview in Greenwood Village.
The smoke was real, but from a machine, not a fire.
There was another substitute. In real search efforts, firefighters carry in “irons” – an ax and a fancy pry bar called a Halligan – that they’ll sweep to search for obstacles and victims and pound the floor to check for weak spots. For the training exercise, they used orange wooden dowels, about twice the thickness of a broom handle so as not to damage anything inside.
When visibility is really bad, firefighters get on their hands and knees to work their way through. They hold onto a guide rope to get to a certain spot, and then tie on tether ropes, their only means sometimes of finding their way back to the main escape route.
Firefighter practice tying knots in ropes while wearing gloves so they can do the same thing on the job. They practice breathing techniques to conserve their air.
Still, some breathe more than others.
On one crew, a firefighter told his team leader that his air monitor was registering amber – a warning. So the leader told the firefighter to stand along the main rope and narrow his search so he could conserve oxygen.
On another, the team leader was the first to show amber on her gauge. But that was because she was doing a lot of talking, telling her crew where to move, where to search.
The exercise was part reminder, part reinforcement, part prove it exercise.
Some firefighters had to remind themselves to check the face mask gauges and not look down at their shoulder gauges, watching the full charge of three green lights go to two, then one, then amber.
One was outside a few seconds when his face vibrator went off, partly because he didn’t turn off his air tank, partly because he had cut it that close.
Some firefighters didn’t think they’d have enough time inside to properly do their jobs because they would be leaving with too much air in their tanks.
“I learned we can do a lot more than I thought in a half-hour,” said Pam Krotz, a firefighter 13 years with South Metro.
Lt. Brian Netzel became a believer after the exercise.
“I made it further than I thought before I hit a half a tank,” said Netzel and his crew searched every room on the second floor and found two “bodies” – dummies of guests reported missing in the training scenario.
“I’ve changed my attitude on the new policy,” Netzel said. “I was afraid before that we wouldn’t have enough time.”
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