Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Firefighters pass the hero test nearly every day

Peter Bronson

The final exam at Fire College is tough enough to set your hair on fire. No kidding.

First, you suit up like a deep-sea diver looking for a shipwreck in Hell. Knee-high rubber boots that make your feet sweat like a politician in front of a grand jury. Pants and a jacket that could be made from scraps of circus tents - stiff enough to stand up and walk around by themselves. A white hood like the kind you'd wear to hold up a liquor store. A breathing apparatus like a WWI gas mask. And a shiny red helmet that shouts "Fireman!''

On top of all that, you strap on an oxygen tank, and button everything up as tight as a bank on Sunday. Then you are herded into a big red Dumpster that's smoking like a coal train chugging uphill. You crowd into narrow benches.

Against the soot-black ceiling, rivers of gray smoke snake their way over your head, setting off those alarm bells deep in the brain that yell, "Fire!'' Just a coin toss over a low wall, flames begin to dance in the air like the evil spirits of killer infernos, come back to life.

It's a strange thing to see the air itself burning like a fireplace suspended in space. It would make the hair on your arms stand up - if it wasn't too scared of getting singed.

Then the flames rush over the wall - crawling along the ceiling with giant fingers that reach out, over your head.

That's a flashover. The controlled kind.

It's carefully managed by a firefighter on the floor who holds a hose at the ready , dousing the source when it gets too hot.

In this case, the students are mediacrats, politicians and other rank rookies, unworthy to wear red suspenders or shine a rubber boot. So this time, "too hot'' is just over 200 degrees - not quite enough to cook a columnist.

When firefighters go to school, the flashovers can be cranked up to 600 degrees. And in an uncontrolled flashover in a burning house, temperatures can hit 1,200-2,000 degrees. At that metal-melting heat, your fire protection suit warranty expires in 11 seconds and you get scorched.

"There's really nothing to worry about,'' they said as they marched us around the Fire College campus behind the Cincinnati Sanitation Department.

We worried anyway. It's unavoidable when a ceiling of flames leans close enough to plant a hot kiss on your helmet.

We worried when we crawled through a smoke-filled building so dark you couldn't see a hand in front of your face if it was Mike Tyson's fist punching out your lights.

We worried when firefighters lit a large pond of diesel fuel and gasoline and it blazed like a burning tanker, obliterating the sky with black smoke until I wondered if someone should call the fire department.

And when they gave us super-power tin snips and hydraulic can openers to tear a car apart, I worried about how it feels to be pinned in all that twisted glass, metal and plastic.

We learned Cincinnati could save a lot of lives with more thermal imaging cameras to find victims in a burning house without groping in the dark. To donate, contact the Rotary Club of Cincinnati, 513-632-4806.

They also need safer, more comfortable leather boots.

And I learned that firefighters are real heroes. They pass the test every day.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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