Imagine air so thick with smoke that it fills every crevice of the building, creating a darkness as black as oil. The only oxygen is that from a face mask delivered via a tube from the tank strapped to your back. The ceiling has collapsed, and you're trapped in a net of wires.
Do you call Mayday, or believe you can get yourself out? And if you don't get out, what about your family?
These are some of the thoughts that race through a firefighter's mind when trying to escape "the box," a three-foot-by-three-foot, cube-shaped tunnel, crisscrossed with 86 wires too thick to break.
The box is one of several training drills North Shore Fire Department (NSFD) firefighters endure to prepare for live calls.
Moving through the box, "a few inches feels like a mile," said Rich Rutley, a heavy equipment operator with the fire department.
"Wires, they're just everywhere,” Lt. Pete Busalacchi said. “They're under you, across your legs, across your neck, across your shoulders.”
The firefighting drills take place in an vacant warehouse at 4059 W. Bradley Rd., in Brown Deer. The building serves as a training site for the NSFD, but there are also another 10 Milwaukee County area fire departments who collectively are a division of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System-Wisconsin (MABAS-Wisconsin) also taking the same training. The other 10 will facilitate their own sites.
The drills are part of a standardized training program for the 469 firefighters with the 11 departments, and the program and equipment are funded by a $175,964 grant to the MABAS-Wisconsin division that includes the NSFD. The grant requires departments provide matching funds, and a $43,990 match is split between the 11 departments.
The three-day training program also includes techniques like the Denver Drill, used to get a downed firefighter up and through a window; emergency evacuation by rappeling down a wall without harnesses; face piece and air tank changeout; and how to find a firefighter who has triggered a pass device, a loud beeper-like notification device attached to each firefighter in case they go down. (Many of these practices can be seen in the accompanying video.)
Making it through such grueling experiences, however, takes more than physical strength, stamina and training. Firefighters say the human bond they share is critical in bringing them through.
As firefighters take their turn in the box, you'll hear another say, "Excellent job controlling your breathing," "Nice job!" or, "That a boy!"
"Working closely together is like working with a family," said Randy Short, a 20-year firefighter veteran. "You do have your squabbles with the family, but when the chips are down, you all pull together and work things out."
"I've got a wife and two kids, knowing that I may never come home the next day," Rutley said. "But I know that if I ever do get into a situation like this, my brothers are trained and will do everything in their power to get me out."
National incidents that claimed the lives of firefighters make this type of standardized training a necessity, said Andrew Harris, deputy chief of operations.
Harris cited incidents elsewhere when firefighters died because they waited too long to issue a Mayday call or became trapped in a web of wires. Such incidents, he said, prompted the NSFD to "analyze if we are truly prepared to effectively rescue a downed firefighter.”
"We're a pretty macho group," Harris said, referring to the men and three women firefighters with the department. "We think we can rescue ourselves, but we have to realize first that we're in that situation."
"This training is both physically and psychologically challenging, but, as a coach once told me, 'Practice like you play and play like you practice,' " Harris said. "I am a firm believer that we need to train as if it were a real situation, so that we react as we trained in (facing) the real situation."
The grant also funded equipment that includes, among other things:
- An RIT (rapid intervention team) rescue pack. The RIT pack is used to provide an air supply to a downed firefighter or a firefighter with a low-air emergency.
- A 200-foot search rope system used to guide firefighters out of a building when they can’t see.
- A hand tool kit with wire cutters, snips, shears and various lengths of webbing used to free and remove a downed firefighter from a structure or to free firefighters trapped in situations like the one simulated with “the box.”
- A pre-rigged rope system used to remove a firefighter that has fallen through a floor.
- A pre-rigged rope system used to remove a downed firefighter from upper floors of a building.
- A Quick Step 10-foot ladder that can be quickly deployed and used to remove firefighters that have fallen through a floor.
Harris said time is one of the most critical elements when fighting a fire.
“When a Mayday is called, it is not the time for either the incident commander or the other firefighters on the scene to begin coordination of a rapid intervention operation. If that occurs, time will be lost, and (lost) time in these situations, most commonly, will mean a firefighter or, even worse, a group of firefighters (lose their) lives,” Harris said.
Battalion Chief Jeff Weigand and Keven Stelzel, a heavy equipment operator with the department, lead the training for the NSFD.
Training began in November, and the next session will be in April. About 15 firefighters participate in a training session, which runs eight hours a day over three days.
By April, Harris said, 70 percent of the NSFD firefighters will be trained. The goal is to have all NSFD firefighters complete the training by the end of July.
The MABAS-Wisconsin divison that includes the NSFD "protects 146 square miles, employs 469 firefighters, and responds to approximately 40,000 incidents each year,” Harris said. “Of the 40,000 incidents, approximately 500 are considered structure fires by the National Fire Incident Reporting System.”
“The standardized procedures and training will increase operational success on the fire ground while at the same time enhancing firefighter safety,” Harris said.