I felt very alone as I stood in the near darkness wrapped in a thick, white fog of theatrical smoke. There were voices around me but all I could see were grey shadows.
We were in the Company 4 garage bay Wednesday during the seventh class of the Avon Citizens’ Fire Academy. A machine pumped white smoke, simulating heavy smoke in a burning building.
I was reluctant to move much, having already tripped on a misplaced item that was invisible to me on the concrete floor.
One of the firefighter catch-phrases I heard that night from firefighter Tom Post is one that I will remember for quite some time: “If you can’t see your feet, you need to crawl.”
He was referring to the potential dangers that a firefighter faces when searching a smoke-filled room on a fire call – stepping into an unseen hole in the floor or falling through an open elevator shaft among them.
It is much often safer, Post said, to inch forward slowly on your hands and knees.
Typically, he said, respondents travel in teams of two or more and “we have each other’s back.”
Post noted that walk-in closets can be especially challenging, since a firefighter can get caught in a web of hangers and clothes, particularly in a dark room.
We each took turns peering through a thermal-imaging camera. I was fascinated as I scanned the room and saw my classmates, as well as several firefighters and Explorers, in blurry black-and-white, as if I was looking at an old-fashioned negative.
Thermal imaging can be extremely helpful finding survivors at night in a fire or lost in the woods, Post explained, as it can detect body heat.
Our evening also included a presentation by former fire captain Matt Gugliotti, who was animated and knowledgeable as he described the challenges of properly handling hazardous materials, also known as HazMat, at a scene.
“HazMat calls are ugly calls … they’re very dangerous calls,” he said. “They’re not fun at all. We never know what we’re going into.”
There are nine types of hazardous materials, and most can be identified by a placard on the tank, or the shape of the tank.
Just listening to Gugliotti name some of the categories made me cringe: chemicals, explosives, gases, flammable liquids, radioactive, corrosive, poison and infectious substances.
Each has a specific protocol that must be followed to the letter and firefighter safety is paramount, said Gugliotti, who described HazMat as “the golf of fire service. We have to know the chemical properties before we go in and do anything. It’s research intensive.”
Prior to stepping foot on the scene, they follow an eight-step process to determine everything from how and what to use to stabilize and contain the substance or gas (water can be flammable in certain circumstances); how to safely treat victims without jeopardizing their own safety; what protective clothing to wear; and decontamination procedures.
Proper disposal also is critical in order to prevent groundwater contamination.
“We always have to be very careful about that,” said Gugliotti, noting that environmental concerns are always front and center.
Several Avon Volunteer Fire Department members have undergone more than 200 hours of HazMat technical training so they can handle these difficult calls.
During our last segment, we were given a preview of our final class by retired Chief Harvey Reeser and firefighter Jess Wernikoff.
We were shown a variety of extrication tools used at motor vehicle accidents, which we will have the chance to operate at an excursion to the Avon Department of Public Works lot on Saturday.
I’m feeling a bit wistful as I write this, knowing that our program is coming to an end. I have learned much, met many wonderful people and had lots of fun.
But I shouldn’t jump too far ahead. I still have my much-anticipated ride on a fire truck, the experience of cutting a roof off a car and a dinner/reception in our honor to report on next week.