Although I am decades past the wonders of childhood, my long-awaited ride in a fire truck was exhilarating.
Dressed in full firefighter gear and strapped tightly into a rear cab seat, I felt happy and starry-eyed as we bumped along to our last class at the Avon Volunteer Fire Department Citizens’ Fire Academy. I also was wistful, knowing that this was the end of a wonderful, eight-week adventure.
It was a great vantage point, looking down at the roads of Avon as we made our way to the Avon Public Works parking lot to simulate response to a serious car accident. I had no idea what to expect and the anticipation made my heart race.
I wondered about my level of participation, as I was still recovering from a left wrist sprain when I sadly fell off my bike in a parking lot on Mother’s Day before even hitting the trail.
When we arrived, we were greeted by several firefighters who were there to assist and ensure our safety. Even Fire Marshal James DiPace dropped by to check out our progress and chat.
The fire department laid out numerous extrication tools for our use – many quite daunting to see up-close – next to a battered Pontiac Grand Prix that was provided by Farmington Motor Sports Inc. The auto repair shop had taken out the gas and battery fluids and cut power lines from the car.
Our first task was to place yellow blocks behind the tires and under the car body to stabilize the car to “make the scene safe,” according to Avon Fire Chief Michael Trick, who directed the class.
We then learned varying techniques for breaking car windows and dealing with tempered glass. I got to handle a slim, jagged knife-like tool which firefighters use to extract the windshield.
Initially, I was timid with my slicing motions until Trick joked that this was the perfect time to get out personal frustrations. Funny thing, I suddenly got a burst of energy and began cutting with great intensity. My fellow students laughed.
Less than 10 minutes into the drill, we had to take a break on the hazy, low-70s morning because I felt light-headed in my heavy gear. We were instructed to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated and open our thick, multi-layered coats to cool down. It really made me wonder how difficult conditions must be for firefighters walking into a burning building in mid-summer, 90-degree weather.
With methodical efficiency, Trick and his team had each of us take turns using an over-sized vice and other unusual tools to detach the doors. I enjoyed snipping the last cord before we pulled away the driver's door.
With the assistance of Neil Pendergast from the UConn Fire Department, we learned how to extricate a person from a vehicle. With some firefighters leading the way, we helped move Jen Reeser, a brave Avon volunteer firefighter, from the car and onto a stretcher, making sure to keep her neck and spine stabilized.
The final challenge was cutting off the roof. The mammoth, hydraulic clippers were a bit much for me to handle, and my classmates lifted the roof and placed it on the ground next to what was now a shell of a car.
Some of my classmates and I took home a piece of the roof frame as a token of our work.
It was a job well done, except for the fact that it took us nearly three hours – with several breaks and instruction in between– and made us all realize the unique challenges that firefighters and emergency personnel face at the scene of a serious accident.
The morning was capped by a turn at spraying water out of a fire department hose. This is a two-person job -- in my case, three, as I was one-handed -- but I felt empowered as I learned the proper circling motion for attacking a fire with a hose shooting 100 gallons of water per minute.
When we returned to the station, I was exhausted. After turning in my gear, saying “goodbyes” and driving home, I promptly took a two-hour nap in the middle of a Saturday afternoon.
Four nights later, we were treated to a graduation ceremony and delicious dinner at Company One on Darling Drive. I shared the evening with my two daughters: Amanda, just home from her first year at college, and Grace, a seventh-grader who has heard way more than she cared to know about my firefighting adventures from week to week.
I must admit it made me feel proud to have them see the slideshow of our session and hear my name called as a graduate of the academy to received a certificate, mug and pen.
The Avon Citizens’ Fire Academy has been an eye-opening experience for me. I have met many kind, brave, selfless Avon residents who dedicate thousands of hours as volunteers for the fire department – from the young Explorers who meet weekly for training to the retired firefighters who still help out where and when they can.
The hands-on experiences were fascinating and the information invaluable to someone who lives in a community that has a volunteer fire department, and is a homeowner who cares about fire safety.
While I don’t think I am suited to be a full-fledged firefighter, I could see myself at some point helping out in a supportive role.
For now, I consider myself lucky to have gone behind the curtain. I will forever be impressed with what I saw.
If you have been reading my accounts with interest, I would encourage you to keep an eye out for the next session, which will be scheduled in April of 2012. Even better, you might consider becoming part of the Avon Volunteer Fire Department.
Photos of our last class are available on Picasa Web.
Next week, I will conclude my series by detailing the opportunities available at the fire department, with insights from Trick and Ken Sedlak, Fire Police lieutenant and fire department board vice-president.