Photo by Lucas Kotschi

With sweat trickling down my face, I spread my feet wide and pull in a long section of a fire hose into a cement building on the Milwaukee Area Technical College campus during a fire training exercise held Saturday in Oak Creek.

The hose slowly curls to the back of me. Making sure that it doesn’t kink, I pull more and more of the hose into the room. The other firefighters in my group pull the other section away from me and move towards the fire.

Battling the Blaze

Every part of me wants to leave because I know a room in this building is on fire. But I stay because the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin are teaching me about what it’s like to be a firefighter during their Fire Ops 101 Training.

I am wearing firefighter turnout gear: The coat, pants, suspenders, fire boots, hood, gloves, helmet, goggles, and breathing mask. The oxygen tank strapped to my back weighs 23 pounds. Wearing the gear makes simple movements difficult and the heat pulls me to my knees.

As instructed, I keep a hand on the hose as I crawl on my hands and knees– one, two, and three inches forward. The smoke billows out of an adjacent room. My breathing is uneven. I remind myself of what Larry DeRosier, one of the wranglers assigned to my group, told me: Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.

More sweat drips down my face. I hear a hissing sound from my oxygen mask. The beeping of my regulator reminds me that I need to remember to shake it. And I hear the other firefighters yelling that they found the fire. Sinking closer to the ground, I breathe in through my mouth, tell myself I don’t have it right and look back to make sure that the hose hasn’t kinked.

Nothing Is Easy About A Fighting Fire

I feel my heart race, reach for the hose, and push on. I wonder how these men and women complete this task day in and day out.

“Stay on the other side of the hose, keep low, follow the hose and communicate with the others,” the instructor tells me.

Even close to the ground, the temperature is above 200 degrees. I wish I could feel the water running through the hose.

Looking ahead, I see Mount Pleasant Village President Jerry Garski and trustee Jon Hansen, the other two firefighters in my group. Kneeling on the ground they point the water hose at the fire that towers several feet above them. After a minute of tackling the fire, I should be relieved when I see them put it out. But I’m not. I panic. I want all of this gear off now. And I still need to crawl across the smoke-filled room, which seems to take forever.

Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth, I tell myself as I crawl to the door to get outside.

After taking my mask off, the instructors ask me if I want to go back in and I hear myself telling them no. I get it. And I decide that I would make a lousy hero.

This is the first in a three-part series about the Fire Ops Training day.

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.