Volunteer firefighting not for slackers

Every kid has dreamed about becoming a firefighter at one time or another. Racing through the streets in a fire engine, putting out fires with high-pressure water hoses, breaking down doors with axes–who wouldn’t find that appealing?
But it’s not a job to be taking lightly, noted Rob Johnson, even if it isn’t a full-time job.
Johnson is the chief of the Emo Volunteer Fire Department, which has about 15 members. Four of them, including Johnson, took part in a training exercise last week at an abandoned house southeast of Emo.
“The amount of training is extensive,” Johnson said, noting in addition to the three hours of training exercises a month, volunteers have to spend their own time reading the literature and doing some training on their own.
“Even though we are small, and only respond to a half-dozen fire calls a year, any call that comes we could expect the same trouble as in Metro Toronto,” he added.
“We have to be as well trained as a full-time fire department.”
Willie Hay, Dale Hartlin, and Don Smith were the three firefighters who joined Johnson for last Wednesday’s exercise, which involved how to find victims in a smoke-filled environment.
Since it was only a training exercise, a machine spewing non-toxic smoke was used to fog up the house. But the men still strapped on oxygen tanks and wore full gear to simulate as real a situation as possible.
“It’s giving back to your community,” Smith said, explaining why he chose to become a volunteer firefighter just before he slapped on his breathing gear.
“You think, ‘If I were in the same situation, I want someone to come to my house,’” he added. “I want someone coming to my assistance.”
It only took a few minutes for the smoke to start pouring out every crack and window from the house. Johnson then hid “Fred,” a makeshift mannequin, somewhere in the house for the other firefighters to find in the smoke.
“The thing we want to be looking for is a bedroom, in a closet, or under a bed,” Johnson said, noting many times small children will try to hide from a fire.
Firefighters enter on their hands and knees, with one moving along the wall while the other feels inside the room.
“We always use the buddy system–two men in and two men out,” Johnson stressed. “And they’re always in contact.”
It didn’t take long for Johnson’s men to find “Fred” the first time around. As he donned his gear to hide the dummy a second time, he asked if I wanted to try one on.
Within five minutes, I had an oxygen tank strapped to my back and went through a crash course on how to properly seal my oxygen mask to my face so the smoke doesn’t seep in. They didn’t bother outfitting me with any other protective clothing–after all, I was reminded, it was only non-toxic smoke.
Johnson led the way into the house. The smoke in the kitchen had dissipated somewhat through the door which had been torn off its hinges and the screened windows. But as we stepped into the living room, the world went grey–and the entrance to the kitchen became just a lighter patch in the greyness.
“This is what a real fire is like,” Johnson shouted to me through his mask. “Except you normally have 400 to 500 degrees of heat coming at you. You’re visibility is only a couple of feet.”
He wasn’t kidding. I took another step into the room and stretched my hand out in front of me, watching my fingers disappear in the smoke.
Johnson told me to wait by the door, then vanished from view as he hid “Fred” again. His reappearance was just as ghostly, seemingly walking out of nothing.
We walked back outside, where Smith and Hay helped me take the oxygen tank off my back.
“Isn’t that a rush?” Smith asked. “You don’t know what to expect at a fire. You go in calm, think back to training, and pace your breathing. We work a lot with team effort.”
Although the Emo fire department has a good roster now, Johnson said they aren’t turning new people away.
“There’s always room for more,” he stressed.