Firefighter recruit Chris Folster reached for his radio during a training exercise on Friday. The simulation included the sounds of a burning building raging around him. A steady, high-pitched tone broadcast his distress to anyone in earshot.
Having just pulled himself out from under a ceiling collapse in the scenario, the recruit was virtually blind, separated from the rest of his team and running desperately low on air. Keying the radio’s transmitter, Folster’s voice cut in and out through the roar of the fire as he tried to update his commander, Lt. Keith Hubble, of his current situation.
Compounding his hardship, the radio seemed to be malfunctioning.
“I did not copy any of your vocals,” Hubble’s voice crackled back at him through heavy static. “But I’m not concerned with it; I know you’re low on air. I just need you to keep moving. Just. Keep. Moving.”
Folster turned back to the task at hand with a heavy sigh. Reaching out one thick gloved hand, the recruit’s fingers closed over the fire hose snaking along the ground as he groped blindly for the next coupling.
Standing less than a foot away, Lt. Bob McCaa watched the recruit’s progress in the cramped survival chamber at the Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue Services’ Public Safety Training Facility off Reichs Ford Road.
“He’s following the hose line,” McCaa said, nodding approvingly. “If he stays on a hose line, he can follow it and trace it. Then, when you get to a coupling, by the feel of a coupling, you can identify which direction you’re moving, whether you’re going towards the nozzle or whether you’re going back towards the firetruck.”
Friday’s class on firefighter safety and survival took place about 10 weeks into recruit class 20’s six-month academy and represented an incredibly important lesson for any aspiring firefighter, McCaa said: how to rescue yourself in a dangerous, unexpected emergency.
Teams specially trained to rescue trapped firefighters are ready to back up crews anywhere in Frederick County. But anything from an unforeseen catastrophe to simple geography can delay response times, the lieutenant said.
“You can’t just sit there and wait for help,” McCaa said. “So we’re practicing things like, for example, if you’re lost and you locate a hose line, what are the techniques, if you’re not able to see, to determine which way on the hose line will lead you to safety? Or, if you fall, what are some techniques you can use to orient yourself?”
To drive home the point of life-and-death lessons, many scenarios are named after real-life tragedies. For example, the “Columbus drill” is named for a technique developed after an arson fire in Columbus, Ohio, that claimed the life of Lt. John Nance on July 25, 1987.
McCaa and other instructors keep a blog to share videos and accounts with the recruits of examples where these techniques were successfully used to rescue firefighters.
“There was a fire in Burtonsville, and the driver from Wheaton’s rescue squad fell through a hole in the floor into the basement,” McCaa said. “And as a result of procedures that we’re exercising this week, they were able to successfully extricate that fallen firefighter without any injury.”
As McCaa talked, Folster crawled up to yet another juncture, a narrow, constricted corridor crisscrossed with wires and other obstructions.
The academy’s instructors are concerned with teaching prospective firefighters how to survive. They aren’t interested in handing them easy lessons.
As the recruit struggled to find a corner to crawl through, Hubble and another instructor ran up to shout encouragement, momentarily breaking the illusion of a burning building.
“Keep fighting! Keep fighting! Don’t give up!” Hubble shouted. “C’mon, swim! Swim! That’s it!”
Everything — naked wire traps, narrow corridors, a hydraulic collapsing floor and the ever-present, mind-numbing noise — was designed to confuse and disorient Folster and the rest of the 23 recruits in the class, McCaa said as the noise of the fire suddenly cut off.
“I prefer fireground stuff, but any noise we can generate is useful because it gets them used to the chaos of the fire,” McCaa said. He grinned as the roaring fire noise was suddenly replaced by Kiss’ 1976 classic “Detroit Rock City,” blasting at maximum volume. “This, for example, is from Lt. Hubble’s personal playlist.”
Folster said he couldn’t recall when the fire noises stopped and the rock music began. His mind was far too focused on remembering the lessons he needed to retrace his steps and escape the building.
Having doffed his cumbersome turnout coat, helmet and breathing apparatus, Folster looked back on his experience Friday with far more calmness and gratitude than he felt while crawling through the maze.
“It’s a challenge to all of our skills. It lets us use all of our skills and see them in the most realistic environment possible without actually setting the building on fire,” Folster said. “... So hopefully, if we ever need these skills for real, they’ll come back to us by nature.”