Reporter finds she can take the heat

Photo courtesy of the International Association of Fire Fighters

Downriver Sunday Times reporter Andrea Poteet carries a dummy downstairs on a stretcher May 7 at the Michigan Institute of Public Safety Education Training Center on the the Wayne County Community College District Downriver Campus as part of the International Association of Fire Fighters Fire Ops 101 program. As part of the program, 20 city officials and reporters from the region practiced fire drills with professional firefighters.

Photo courtesy of the International Association of Fire Fighters

Wyandotte Police and Fire Commission President Doug Melzer (left), Downriver Sunday Times reporter Andrea Poteet, and Kathy Harvell and Randy Nebrig of Accumed Billing, which handles emergency medical services billing for several Downriver communities, pose for a group picture in front of a simulated jetliner fire.

The fire rages inches from my face, but I can’t feel the heat.

Tucked inside layers of flameproof turnout gear and a face mask hooked to an air-compression tank, I can’t decipher the warning from the firefighter next to me either.

I point the hose and release torrents of water that suffocate the flames. Then I stand up and turn around to leave. Moments later, my partner tugs my jacket and pulls me to my knees on the wet floor. I’m shocked by the cold water that has somehow seeped through the waterproof fabric to soak my jeans underneath.

Had this been a real fire, he would have just saved my life. As I recall now from elementary-school assemblies and Smokey the Bear public service announcements, heat rises. Standing up in a burning building is a big no-no.

But because this is Fire Ops 101, I’m safe. The flames can be switched off with the touch of a button and reset for the next group of local government employees and press.

The program, held May 7, is organized by the International Association of Firefighters and the Michigan Institute of Public Safety Education. Throughout the daylong event, firefighters/emergency medical technicians put civil servants and reporters through a day in their shoes. They oversee fire drills at the MIPSE Training Center, on the Downriver campus of Wayne County Community College District in Taylor, so that the public — especially those who handle the city budgets — can see exactly why fire departments fight to keep their budgets fully funded and their staff numbers strong.
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I’ve never been an adventurer.

True, at grade school assemblies my hand always shot up before the performer could finish the sentence, “Can I have a volunteer from the audience?” and because of this I have ridden everything from a circus elephant to a particularly hyper pony, but when it came to anything that required jumping from, scaling down or any variation of the word “dangling,” I was content to pass.

So when I first heard about the Fire Ops program, I was happy to report on it — as an observer.

But when I called organizer and Trenton firefighter Glen Scafidi to tell him this, he wasn’t having it.

“What do you mean you’re not going to participate?” he said. “It will be a lot of fun.”

And the more he talked about the drills, the more fun it sounded. Suddenly scribbling in a notebook on the sidelines sounded pretty lame.
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So there I was early on a Saturday morning, being strapped into my boots, pants, jacket and helmet — 75 pounds of total gear — for a fit check before the opening remarks. Frankly, I was starting to freak out.

“Remember, you have to get this on — start to finish — in 10 seconds next time,” Taylor Fire Capt. Dan Reynolds told me, straightfaced.

(It was only later that I realized the 10-second warning was Reynolds’ pretty convincing joke. Everyone’s a comedian.)

When I finally was in my bulky gear, feeling for all the world like a real-life marshmallow man, I started to calm down. This was shaping up to be pretty fun. I used the Jaws of Life to wrench a door completely off a 1989 Ford Escort. I rode 100 feet up in the basket of a fire engine and learned the valuable travel lesson that such machines don’t reach above the seventh floor of most hotels. Next time, I’m just staying in the lobby.

When we got to the search-and-rescue drill, I really got to jump into the action. With my four-member team and some professionals, I charged up the steps of a two-story mock apartment building to find a dummy in the role of a cardiac arrest patient. It was my job to set up the stretcher and carry the patient feet-first down the stairs on the backboard.

Luckily, there was a trained professional whose job was to descend the stairs behind me and watch my back, because climbing backwards in clunky boots while carrying 100 pounds is not, as it turns out, in my skill set.

I fell backwards, he instantly caught me and propelled me forward, and I steadied the foot of the backboard on my knee, saving the patient exactly the way the Fire Ops teachers had prescribed. At least my screwup was able to provide a visual cue of a recurring theme vocalized by the firefighters that day. It’s crucial that fire departments have enough staff to send on each call, they said.

If someone is trapped in a car, they need one EMT to stay with the patient to prevent back injury while the others operate the Jaws of Life. On a medical call, they need one firefighter to steady his partner while descending the stairs backwards with one end of the backboard. It’s always important that someone has your back.

And that’s one thing I learned as I pulled off my sweat-soaked gear after six hours in the hot sun. The equipment is heavy, the hours are long, the conditions are dangerous. But the job is crucial to the safety of every resident.

All the men and women who do it are asking is that in the wake of economic crisis, their local government officials have their backs.