Day 22: Just a taste

“Ah, fuck this
classroom shit. Let’s go light something on fire.”

…and thus our
Friday began.

Sgt. Paulson
revealed to us that there really was no agenda for this particular Friday, as
everyone had already passed their EMT tests and it was too early to start
firefighting bookwork. He quickly grew tired of telling stories and bullshitting, and
that’s when he uttered the music to everyone’s ears that you see above.

“Get your gear
on, and be outside in the junkyard in ten minutes.”

Three minutes
later, thirty-six eager recruits stood at the ready, next to cut-up cars and big
piles of scrap wood. Most (those of us who had not been firefighters anywhere
before DCFD) moved with the energy of someone who was out of their element, yet
excited to be there; nervous laughs and occasional deep breaths punctuated the
cold air as we hopped from foot to foot.

The more experienced
of 994, at the direction of Sgt. Paulson, began loading wooden pallets stuffed
with hay into what used to be a sedan, a pickup truck, and a white delivery
van. 1¾” hose lines (a standard for interior firefighting) were pulled off the
Academy’s two engines, and began snaking over the sooty ground. Unbelievably
large-diameter hose (6”, I think—I could fit my arm inside it easily) was run
from a fire hydrant to the front of the engine, rapidly becoming rigid as
mysterious pressure from underground coursed into it with the twist of a

There were
three “stations,” if you will, set up over the drill yard. I followed what seemed to be a logical progression, starting with an instruction on
how to handle a pressurized (or “charged”) hose.

As we stood in
line to take our turn at the nozzle, someone whispered towards me “…you really
gotta lean into it. I mean, like,
lean. If you’re about to open it up, and you think you’re all set?—lean a
little more. Then you should be alright.”

They weren’t
lying. Imagine you’re standing with your arms stretched out in front of you,
and they’re placed on the shoulders of a linebacker. Have him start falling
towards you, and try to hold him up.

And this is the smallest line we use, sir?

Step 1: Clamp
the hose up inside your armpit, with that hand supporting the nozzle from the

Step 2: Pull
open the bale (the handle-doohicky on top) with your other hand.

Step 3: Direct
the nozzle where you want the water to go: in controlled, clockwise-directed
circles, as rapidly as possible.

The first time
you use it, only the first two items happen correctly. Water roars out the
front of the nozzle, and it goes wherever it damn well pleases. A second later,
though, you can recover and send it in the general direction of forward. As
for the neat circular sweeps… yeah, we’ll get it eventually.

Advancing with
a hose is an entirely different story. Combine all the new stuff you just
learned in the last minute, and keep it straight in your head while you walk
forward against the aforementioned linebacker.

Fresh from our
tutorial, we advanced to the next area, where an instructor was piling pallet
after pallet into what I can only describe as the ugliest warped metal
shithouse I’ve ever seen. It’s about eight feet tall and four feet wide, with
two windows and a front door cut out of the ¼” steel plates it was constructed
with. The metal is blackened and twisted with years of burning, and it was
currently cooking so hot that the water
the structure was steaming off.

Our assignment?
Approach with a hose line, crouch down “just when you feel the heat,” and give
a one-second blast into the top of the doorway. The goal was to see how well
steam actually puts out a fire; when directed towards the interior roof of the
structure, the water turns to steam so rapidly and explosively that it banks
down the roaring flames just long enough for the next recruit to move up in

Even from about
six feet back, it was pretty toasty. Wood, car cushions, plastic running
boards, tires—anything that would burn was tossed in to show us how different
materials burn. For example: foam couch cushions burn fast and smoky, and don’t
really contribute to the perceived temperature of the fire. Wood, on the other
hand, burns slower but jacks the heat up immensely (it’s better fuel).

Excited at our
first taste of smoke, the heavy-breathing cadre of inexperienced recruits
proceeded to the final area: a roaring, groaning, tire-popping pile of metal
and rubber that sort of looked like a pickup truck.

For this, we
had received a half-hour instruction on Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) usage earlier in the day, and so
we donned our air cylinders and waited for our partners to do the same. The
instructor would wait for the fire to grow to a reasonable size, tell us where
he wanted us to attack, and follow beside us as we did so with the hose.

Being so close
to fire (whether one found it mesmerizing or terrifying) made one forget
everything we had learned not hours ago; we constantly heard order barked at
us, which sounded tinny through the respirator but lacked none of the intensity
of Sgt. Paulson’s usual voice.

“Closer! Get closer! Crouch down now!”

“Tight circles, tight circles! Whip that
nozzle around!”

“I said clockwise, goddamnit! Clockwise!”

We didn’t care
that we were doing it wrong. We didn’t care that the experienced guys were
probably sitting on the bumper of the engine laughing at our newly-acquired
awkward movements. We sure as
didn’t care that we actually knew nothing about putting the conflagration out.

But we were
fighting fire—and that’s what we all came here to do.

Recruit Class 994 was dismissed that day dirtier, sweatier, and only a tiny bit more knowledgeable
about our careers than when we had arrived that morning. However, it was a
common feeling from the very moment that masks were lifted from faces, and the
first cold breaths of un-bottled winter air were sucked in: everyone was beaming, eagerly looking
forward to a weekend of telling somebody (
about how we just might be firefighters someday.

EDIT: A commentor has brought it to my attention that DCFD doesn't use 1 3/4" lines like I mistakenly stated in this post. Whoops! I guess I should include a disclaimer that any firefighting details given may be incorrect due to my current naivete of the DC Fire Department. I stand corrected… thanks, fmbill4!


  • fmbill4 says:

    First of all, we don’t use 1 3/4 lines, but you will learn that later.Second, listen to what the Sgt. says, he’s ok at this stuff, Ive known him for years. Plus I’m there with you all every day.

  • Ray says:

    Great post! Getting closer and closer to the action — must be incredible!

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