Haddam Fire is dispatched to a two-story Cape with smoke showing.
On arrival, the Incident Commander observes smoke pushing from the chimney, but no other evidence of fire. It’s the middle of summer, so that’s a clue that the fire may originate in the basement. He sends a crew in to investigate.
Without warning, the floor above them weakens and collapses. Some firefighters fall on their backs. Dazed for a moment, they regain their senses, push the construction material off and start the tricky process of wading through the debris field to safety. Others, snarled by electrical wires, search their pockets for a cutting tool to free themselves from the tangled mess.
“Worst case scenarios” like these were played out July 16 by Haddam Fire members in a Firefighter Maze, a gauntlet of tight turns, narrow hallways, wires, ropes, tunnels and nets. It was designed to teach air management, survival tactics and self-extrication, but ultimately, test the psychological willpower of firefighters under stress.
“The training plants the confidence in the firefighter that if he or she is trapped and alone without any tools other than what’s in their gear, that it’s very possible to make it out navigating the debris field and remaining calm,” said 2nd Assistant Chief Bob Norton.
Haddam Fire instructors built the maze in an old garage in Tylerville. Earlier this year, the town’s Board of Selectman agreed to let the fire company use part of the garage for training when not in use. The garage, tucked into a lot along Bridge Street, was a state DOT repair facility before the town took it over.
The confined space training calls for full gear and SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus), a valuable exercise for members who haven’t experienced “worst case” firsthand – like myself.
I’ve never been in a structure fire. I’m new to the department, in for less than a year and I’ve only recently earned member status. I’ve put out simulated propane-fueled fires at the Connecticut Fire Academy in Windsor Locks (the “Easy Bake Oven” as the instructor of my Fire 1 and 2 classes called it), and I’ve only experienced real smoke and heat at the burn building at the New Haven Regional Fire Training Academy – intense, but not the real thing.
The day of the maze drill was sticky and hot. You didn’t even have to move to sweat. As evening set in, temperatures lingered near 90, and the garage was quickly heating up with all the bodies moving around inside.
After a radio usability lesson and slow breathing exercise, we geared up and went in, two at a time – based on the federally mandated “two in, two out” rule.
The nervous new guy was partnered with Bob Gardner, a seasoned firefighter with a “no big deal” attitude.
Immediately into the room we go right, ducking under a net. At the first corner is a narrow frame, maybe 18 inches wide. To reduce my profile I loosen the shoulder straps on my SCBA so I can sling it to one side and slide through. I want the maneuver to be textbook, like I was taught in Fire 1. I shift the pack onto my right shoulder, keeping a firm grasp on the regulator hose supplying my air. I then reach towards the waist strap, which I was taught to loosen but not unbuckle. For some reason I start to unbuckle it.
“Hey Jess, I wouldn’t do that,” says Rob Lenois, a new member instructing for drill purposes. “Oh, go ahead, do what you have to do.”
As it turned out, “do what you have to do” was great advice. It’s the Fire Service’s unofficial philosophy: Do what you think will work; If it doesn’t, try something else. All new firefighters ride this learning curve. Officers offer guidance, but they encourage individual decision-making under stress.
The maze simulates some of the stressful scenarios that firefighters may encounter when crawling through a compromised structure – at a fire, collapse, or other emergency that involves searching or rescuing victims.
Firefighters bend, twist and squeeze through various obstacles. After that first corner, two 2 x 4’s straddling a thin sheet of plywood. The edges are meant to resemble floor joists in an attic; the plywood is sheetrock. The idea is to move along the “joists,” being careful not to step in the middle, which in real life could mean falling through the floor.
At the end of the first hallway, two lines of wire obstruct the path. The first firefighter in must locate his cutting tool and snip the wires before continuing.
At the corner is another reduced profile frame, after that, a short tunnel. The first firefighter fully removes his SCBA, waist strap included, and pushes through face-first, on his stomach. The second firefighter “leap-frogs” over the top to take the pole position.
The last straightaway presents the most frustrating challenge. This hallway is even narrower than the first. The firefighter must think of an approach that won’t leave him wedged in. Making matters worse are loose strings and wires he must “swim” through without getting snagged, or using a cutting tool.
The last obstacles are 2 x 4s on hinges that press down on the firefighter. These “arms” represent a wall that has collapsed in pancake fashion, where pieces may have broken off but remain attached. The firefighter must keep a series of these pieces/studs/etc. elevated in order to survive.
For the firefighter, learning to move nimbly in unwieldy gear – often weighing 80-plus pounds – is an ongoing process. The first step is overcoming claustrophobia. Putting an SCBA on for the first time has a distinct “fishbowl” feeling to it. Add the stress of limited mobility and you have a real pressure cooker.
We all react differently when pushed to the brink, but one thing is certain: Everyone has a breaking point.
Norton came close to his this June.
At the CT Fire Academy June Fire School, Norton attended a class called Advanced Users of SCBA. He had to work his way through a mini maze on the third floor of the academy’s training tower. The box is commonly referred to as “The Weeper,” known to make even veteran firefighters cry.
He was confident going in, and completed 90 percent of the maze without any issues, but in the home stretch, it all went wrong.
“My mask became dislodged, my air went to zero, I couldn’t get my hand to my mask to take the regulator out. It was the worst feeling in fire gear of my life,” Norton said.
The upside is the training gave him insight into the mind of a firefighter hung up in a bad situation. As an officer, he said it helped him recognize when someone approaches their breaking point, adding that each time firefighters complete a maze, “their confidence skyrockets.”
My confidence hasn’t skyrocketed, but now twice though the maze, it has a heartbeat.
It’s the old adage “practice makes perfect,” repeated by a sign that hangs in Station 1’s training room. It reads: “An amateur practices until he gets it right. An expert practices until he can’t get it wrong.”
Submitted by Jesse Drake,