Saturday, July 15, 2006
A key skill of a firefighter is being able to wear and operate Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) referred to as BA. This allowed firefighters to enter contaminated environments (smoke, gas etc)to carry out search and rescues.
To be able to become a BA operator meant attending a 4 day course (over 2 week-ends).
I applied for the course along with two other recruits. We did plenty of local training first though, including crawling through dark damp storm water drains wearing BA, which I hated as I was a little claustrophobic.
The course was at a permanant (perms) fire training centre. The instructors were very strict and there was some animosity towards us as volunteers. It was like being in a military camp - we had to line up and acknowledge our name as it was called out. We also were inspected to ensure our gear was clean and boots shiny. I took great pride in my gear and always ensured it was in top condition, even polishing my helmet.
The course consisted of some initial classroom teaching going over the theory involved in gas, oxygen etc. I loved it and caught on very quickly. Next came the practical part. We had to dress up in overalls and learn how to put the BA on and test it was working correctly. Wearing the BA we were paraded around the yard and made to run, jump, climb, do press ups and anything else that caused exertion and made us use up the full cylinder of air.
My friend and I had done a lot of physical training for this and so were very fit. I learnt how to conserve air even during exercise. This meant that whilst most candidates were down to their last gasps of air in a short space of time, we still had a quarter of a tank left.
This frustrated our instructors, as they wanted the recruits to suffer by having to literally suck out the last shreds of air from their tanks. They attempted to empty our tanks by pushing our facemask demand valves but eventually they gave up much to my delight and their disgust.
The next exercise of the day was to go through the specially constructed, double storied, concrete, smoke chamber wearing the breathing apparatus.
This building had a metal catwalk running through the two levels and had two metal door entrances on the lower level and two on the top. There were also several windows on the outside of the chamber and these were covered with moveable metal shutters. The chamber was fitted with a sprinkler system as well. Two large diesel gas burners fired heat and filthy black smoke into the building.
Our first tour through the notorious chamber was easy, as all of the chambers steel windows were open allowing daylight to help us navigate the way and there was no heat or smoke to contend with.
The course was a maze of moveable steel and wooden partitions which divided the chamber into a narrow pathway. Candidates followed a roped guideline in single file at timed intervals, which took them through a series of obstacles including narrow catwalks, a small wooden box, large concrete pipes, up hot metal stairwells and scaling over and under the walls and various other obstacles. It required using every muscle in the body to squeeze, bend, stretch, crawl and hoist oneself through the difficult route.
As if this wasnt difficult enough, wearing a heavy metal air cylinder that caught on everything it could, it also all had to be done in pitch blackness in 40-60 deg C (104-140 deg F) heat with putrid diesel smoke filling the enclosed environment.
We survived the initial tour and changed cylinders bracing for our final test of the day.
The instructors fired up the two diesel burners, which continually spewed out hot thick black smoke and heated the chamber up like a sauna. They also closed all the windows blocking out the natural light and keeping the heat and smoke in.
Navigating my large six-foot frame through the course was a very physically arduous task. Being so tall meant that with the bulky BA tank on my back I only narrowly fitted through some obstacles and had to go sideways through most of them.
One of the large concrete pipes that was angled upwards was particularly tricky. The entry to it was via a sharp narrow right angle bend. The only way through was to manouver my body into the pipe, hands first, and using my feet push myself fully around the bend into the pipe.
There was not enough room to move your arms once inside the pipe so I would reach up as far as I could and grip the end with my fingers. This way I could haul myself through to the top of the pipe.
The other very difficult obstacle was a small box on the catwalk. It was wider than it was taller and therefore only just large enough for me to fit through it sideways. Once again I would have to reach my arms through to the other side and try and pull myself through at the awkward angle.
Occasionally the large diesel burners would fire up, shooting out bright flames that illuminated the maze in an evil orange glow. When it did I would utilise the light to race through the maze as fast as I could and take whatever shortcuts I could. Apart from that I just tried to memorize the course and make my way using the guideline.
It was very challenging but we all carried it out bar one, who pulled out. For seriously clausrophobic candidates or those scared of the dark or heat this was not the place to be.
The next day we arrived at 8am to find the grinning instructors had already started up the smoke chamber, which was heating up rapidly. We got changed into the regulation overalls, had roll call then donned our BA units preparing for the worst.
By now the heat in the chamber looked intense. Smoke seeped out the narrow gaps of the metal windows and under the doorways. I don’t know the exact temperature but it felt like it couldnt have got much hotter. To make things harder we had to take a wet 90mm coiled hose through the obstacle course with us and ensure it remained coiled. These things weighed about 25 kgs (55lbs).
Despite my fitness, I found it totally physically exhausting. As I crawled through the maze the loose, wet, heavy hose kept uncoiling or get snagged slowing my progress. The extra effort of manoeuvring the hose used valuable air. I also found it stressful as I fought off feelings of claustrophobia and getting stuck.I managed to complete the course successfully. Not everyone did however and a few more people pulled out of the course or were eliminated.
The second weekend involved much of the same. One of the more enjoyable tasks involved being paired up with another candidate and dragging a dummy through the chamber. Having someone else to help made all the difference. Comradrie really helps, not only physically, but mentally as well.
However the scariest test still lay ahead. On the last day we were driven out to a neighbouring suburb where and a manhole was opened in a suburban street.
The instructor told us the route to take. We were to go down into the manhole wearing BA and take a spare cylinder with us and head along the large undergorund drainpipe until we came to a concrete room. We were to feel our way in the pitch backness to find the furthermost pipe on the right and take that route. Then we would come to a larger room with three pipes leading out of it and once again take the pipe on the right. If we ran out of air while down there we were to change cylinders. The course had to be done completly by feel, as there was absolutely no light source at all.
One by one, at set time intervals, we had to lower oursleves into the dark underground tunnel and crawl through the storm water drain along the given route. It was pitch black, slimy and, I hate to admit it, but very scary.
I just concentrated on getting on with it and scurried along the tunnel as best I could, blocking out the thoughts of rats, rainwater downpours and unexpected earthquakes. I eventually found the first room and using my hands managed to locate the next tunnel entrance. I raced through that and came to the larger room, which had much larger pipes coming out of it. At least I could almost walk through this one instead of crawling but the down side was that it was also waste deep in water.
Eventually I could see light at the exit and I waded through the water into a small outside creek. Thank God it was finally over.
After everyone was accounted for, we returned to the training school and had a shower. As I bathed naked under refreshing hot water I was shocked by what I suddenly discovered. My right knee that I had injured many years ago had swollen up to the size of a softball. I cursed but it was also becomming too painful to ignore. Getting dressed, I plucked up the courage and I went to see the instructor.
Without hesitation he had a fireman get a van and whisk me away to the nearest ER where I was promptly seen. The doctor said it wasn’t anything too serious, probably just some fluid collection due to all the crawling and I returned to the training centre with much relief and a bandaged knee.
The instructor was initially furious thinking I had made it all up but the fireman that came with me placated him explaining my injury was legitimate buit not serious. I was petrified he would fail me from the course.
Thankfully I was allowed to stay and carry out the final practical test. We had to sit a written paper and put the BA on within a given time. I had practiced this exercise down to a fine art and passed both tests no problem. Finally the day was over and I had passed what was probably the hardest physical and mental challenge I had ever encountered in my life.