During the first week that I was at the Academy, I remember wondering aloud what the large black plastic tubes were for that sat at the back of the drill yard. Someone who had done this before informed me that they were to teach recruits how to navigate tight spaces while wearing their SCBAs.
Only yesterday did I find out how truly confining that space was. After everyone had donned their equipment, we were instructed to proceed through a tube that was not much wider than most of the recruits' shoulders (remember, we were in full firefighting gear).
As I was awaiting my turn, I could have sworn that the opening to the tube was getting smaller with every step towards the front of the line.
And if inching through thirty-odd feet of what felt like an impossibly tiny space wasn't bad enough, there was a mess of ropes at one end that we had to navigate through to get out.
Some made it through pretty easily, others had a harder time getting out. Personally, I had some ropes stuck on my SCBA for a while, and only when I rolled over onto my back was I finally able to sneak through. Thankfully, our Sergeants were yelling some pretty useful tips; the most important of which was "Calm down! Slow your breathing…" Not only were some people (myself included) wasting a lot of effort and air in struggling through the tube, but this was one of the trials by fire—we learned what it was like to have to fight back panic. It gets pretty uncomfortable in there, particularly when you try to move your arm this way or that and you realize that you can't. It's especially worse when you can barely see daylight, and all you want is to get out of this damned plastic prison.
We also did "buddy breathing" drills, in which you practice connecting your regulator to another firefighter's air cylinder. Designed so that one firefighter can share air with a partner whose tank has run dry, the system should give two personnel enough time to get out before they're really in trouble.
In fact, the instructors thought we looked so good all chained together that they led us on a lap around the building (and just as an F.Y.I., a camera viewfinder is hard as hell to sight through while wearing one of these masks. Every one of these shots was my best estimate of composition and framing.)
We rounded out the day learning how to squeeze our bulked-up frames through standard 16" wall studs (you never know when you might have to escape into the adjacent room… just kick in the drywall and in you go!)
It was a body-beater of a day, to be sure; we were knocked around a bunch (thank God for helmets), but we all felt like we had accomplished something. Most of us who have never been firefighters before were charged with excitement; as someone outside of the Academy once put it: "Crawling through tubes? Climbing stairs and kicking stuff down? Your stories about work always sounds like an old-school Nickelodeon game show, like Guts."
Yes, it does sound like that. But I can guarantee you that those kids didn't have nearly as much fun as we did. There's nothing like being tired and sweaty to round out your day—unless it's Sgt. Paulson shouting "BOX!" for the fourth time today, just moments after you finished putting your sweat-drenched bunker gear away to dry.
It might sound like a game show, but I can almost guarantee that the intensity level is going to keep climbing for the next fifteen weeks. Today we ran a Tower with our SCBAs on; soon, we'll be doing it with SCBAs and hose racks.
Sometimes it's rough—but the pain is part of the sacrifice you make for this job. You have to really want it. There's no denying one thing, though.
Fresh air has rarely tasted so sweet.