What kid, thrilling to the blare of horns and sirens and the flashing lights as a fire rig speeds past, hasn’t longed to become a firefighter?
But behind the adrenaline rush of entering a burning building or administering chest compressions lie hundreds of hours of training.
In Minneapolis, and for fire units from across the region, some of that hands-on training happens at a specialized training facility next to the city water works in Fridley. It’s where firefighters can attack a blazing railroad tank car, drop off a six-story building supported only by ropes, and wield powerful tools to chew a junked car to bits to practice accident extrication skills.
That’s where colleague Eric Roper and I, along with a dozen or so other local reporters, got a taste of a firefighter’s job.
First, ignore the stereotype of a firefighter dashing into a burning building. It’s hard to dash when you’re wearing 50 pounds of equipment. We lumbered about in heavy rubber boots, thickly padded clothing and gloves, hoodies and helmets, supplemented by air tanks and facemasks. Sweat poured off us even before we entered the burn house.
Now, try crouching down to get under the smoke, and hauling a stubborn hose fully charged with water around corners and up stairs. If there’s enough smoke, you may not even see the fire, and find it instead by ear.
Next, wrestle the pistol-grip nozzle of the hose toward the fire, brace it against your side, and ease open the valve to release water in a pattern on the flames. And when your air tank emits an alarm that it will soon need replacing, blindly follow the path of the hose to find your way out of the building.
It’s a disorienting experience, even if you’re not claustrophobic.
The city’s firefighters aren’t shy about their desire to return to four-person engine companies, something sacrificed in the name of balancing budgets. That fourth person relieves some of the physical stress on a team by helping to keep hose from tangling and helping schlep water-laden sections of hose into a building.
These days, most of a firefighter’s job consists of medical runs, with a record number last year and this year running ahead of that. It’s a trend that’s expected to continue as the baby boom ages.
The medical side of the job involves keeping someone in distress alive and stable until ambulance crews can transport them if needed. Firefighters say there’s a big difference in having a fourth crew member available to share the exhausting job of chest compressions.
Despite the variety of specialized tools they carry, firefighting and rescue work still involves brute strength. Proper technique can help reduce the chances of injury, but backs, shoulders and knees commonly give out.
The mandatory retirement age is 65, but few firefighters make it that long, with pension plans designed to allow them to opt out earlier. Fire Chief John Fruetel expects to replace 60 percent of his workforce in the next 10 years.
The city has trained one crop of recruits this year and is partway through preparing another. It’s updating its hiring list with the aim of producing a waiting list of 200 candidates to hire from over the next five years. That process started with 5,000 applicants, indicating that the job still holds broad appeal.
Our morning at the training center was just a small taste of the job. The smoke wasn’t toxic. The seconds weren’t counting down to where a life would be extinguished. We didn’t face the sleep interruptions of a schedule of 24 hours on duty. We didn’t labor long after a fire to clean and dry hose, and wash down the rig. We didn’t face the emotional trauma of a child mangled by failure to wear a seat belt.
At its best, the fire and rescue work of the job represent the culmination of teamwork and good safety practices. We saw both when Minneapolis firefighters and members of the regional task force that’s trained to respond to major rescue efforts teamed to lower us down four stories of the fire training tower.
Safety harnesses were checked and rechecked. Orders were echoed by team members coordinating the ropes with a 9,000-pound breaking point that allowed us to walk our way down the side of a building with confidence. “You gotta have faith,” one firefighter said.
The point of the department’s media day was to help reporters understand what firefighters cope with in responding to an emergency. “Have fun,” Fruetel exhorted before we strapped on our gear. “It’s a giant adult playground out here.”
And it’s true that firefighters get fun toys. At the vehicle extrication station, we enthusiastically if haltingly hacked apart a hapless Buick LeSabre rescued from the junkyard for training purposes.
There was the spring-loaded punch that could shatter a window into hundreds of fragments in an instant. We used another hand tool to smash a hole in a laminated windshield and saw it out in a big sheet. We got a turn at powerful hydraulic shears that could snap through a door hinge or even a frame post, after a spreader popularly called the Jaws of Life widened openings.
But despite cautions to let the machines do the work and not get pinned between the tool and the car, we still got an idea of the physical stresses of the job. Firefighters were ecstatic that their new hydraulic tools were lighter than the old ones, but to reporters with desk jobs they still seemed plenty bulky.
After a morning traipsing around the training facility in heavy outfits through three limited exercises, an old guy like me and a young guy like Roper, both in decent shape for our ages, were ready to drop off to sleep at our desks by midafternoon.
But if we were real firefighters, our shift would have been barely one-third over.