COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Put on five layers of winter clothing, a football helmet and a 60-pound backpack. Then, stand in front of your home oven with the door open and the temperature on full blast and run in place for 10 minutes.
If you can do that, you might have what it takes to be a firefighter.
At least, that’s what I found after spending a day with the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department during their “Fire Ops 101″ program. The one-day crash course — held at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park – allowed Maryland politicians and members of the media to suit up with county firefighters and get a firsthand look at how they fight fires.
“We do this to make sure that our elected officials and the folks that make decisions for us from a budget perspective really understand what we’re talking about when we say we need more fire trucks, or we need more people,” said Marc Bashoor, chief of the county’s fire and EMS department.
For reasons I’m still searching for, I decided to give it a go.
The full fire-retardant gear was enough to produce an ocean’s worth of sweat. A bulky, tan jacket with two yellow-and-gray strips that wrap around it. Padded, tan, fire-worn pants that fall over black rubber boots with yellow trim. Wool gloves the size of the Hulk’s hands, a cotton hood to protect our heads and a bright yellow helmet. Add the 30-pound air supply pack strapped to our backs, and we were carrying an extra 60 pounds of weight.
But that’s still about 50 pounds less than the men and women who do it for real have to lug around.
The rain limited the day’s activities, but not the controlled fire burn inside a five-story, row house-style brick building used for training.
Before we entered the room where the controlled fire was set, our air supply was locked into the breathing masks.
“Once your air supply is on, what we’re doing, you’re experiencing it in real life,” said instructor and firefighter B.J. Harris, just before the thick metal doors were slammed shut.
The fire was set. It started to smolder and build until, within minutes, the roughly 15-foot-high ceiling was no longer visible. The flames were a shiny orange as they quickly expanded with rage, and so did the black, heavy smoke. The temperature reached close to 700 degrees in the room.
Prince George’s County Councilwoman Karen Toles joins the the department in a burning building evacuation. (Photo Courtesy of Mark Bashoor)
Luckily, the air supply kept us from choking. The oxygen packs also serve a second, and equally important, function: They’re equipped with an alert sensor that beeps if a firefighter is not moving.
“If I fell down in a fire, and I was motionless for 30 seconds, they would hear that noise,” said a firefighter inside the room-turned-Easy Bake Oven.
No movement after another 30 seconds, and a full-scale alarm goes off, which is never good in these circumstances.
The entire session lasted 10 minutes. It felt like 10 years.
I’ve seen many a fire from the outside. They look hot. I’ve now seen one from the inside. It’s like death.
“Even through these thick suits you can feel when the heat is bearing down on you, and the smoke … the smoke making it to where, not only can you not see, but you can’t breathe without these masks on with oxygen like we had,” said Melvin Franklin, a Prince George’s County councilman who represents the Ninth District.
After crawling through the pitch-black maze — to simulate navigating through a home on fire — Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks had a newfound respect for firefighters.
“They’re heroes before they even reach the fire,” she said. “It takes courage to do this, and I have so much respect and appreciation for them.”
The department is working with a shortage of nearly 500 employees, according to officials. Along with a tight operating budget, training and truck deployments are heavily scrutinized.
But that hasn’t diminished the quality of the services they provide, Bashoor said.
“When that bell does ring, everybody jumps in and does the right thing,” he said. “They all recognize there’s a time to fight those political fights, and there’s a time to go to work.”