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Citizens get to be ‘firefighter for a day’

Captain Jeremy Hutchison (left) helps Community Memorial Hospital CEO Rick Breuer cut away the car roof to help rescue a victim in a mock car accident Sunday morning. Seven community members volunteered to take part in the “Firefighter For a Day” event organized by the Cloquet Area Fire District. Jamie Lund/ 1 / 6
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My anticipation had been building as the big day drew closer. I was excited to join the ranks, if only for a day, of the brave men and women who wear the traditional, familiar matching yellow jacket and pants of a firefighter.

The Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters 79th annual convention was being hosted by the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD) and International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 880, and the kickoff to the event was a one-day orientation for civilians, elected officials and representatives of the media on Sunday, May 1, to experience a small sampling of what a firefighter could go through on a given day.

For those of you who have not met me, I am not very big, nor will I ever be mistaken for a guy. A coworker calls me prissy because I am a girly girl who likes to wear dresses and cute heels.

However, I like to try new things and am not afraid to jump in and get dirty.

Early Sunday morning Captain Chad Vermeersch welcomed everyone to the event and gave us an overview of what the day would bring.

We learned there are 21 members (mostly firefighters/paramedics) in IAFF Local 880, plus three full-time battalion chiefs, the fire chief and an administrative assistant, as well as 30 paid on-call firefighters. CAFD covers about 250 square miles for Emergency Medical Service. For fire service, CAFD covers Cloquet, Perch Lake Township, Scanlon and are contracted by Fond du Lac to cover the reservation and the casino.

CAFD is set up differently. First, it’s a fire district and not a department of the city, like police, plus some cities have separate services for ambulance and fire while here they are all housed within CAFD. When there are separate services, there are more employees, while in Cloquet the jobs may overlap. If a call comes in and the firefighters are already out on a call, they could be shorthanded for the second call.

CAFD receives about 2,800 calls a year and they continually increase each year.

Besides the obvious dangers of going into a burning building, there is also a silent killer that many are not aware of.

“There is an exposure to harmful chemicals in the smoke,” said Chris Parsons of the St. Paul Fire Department. “All of our furniture today is made up of synthetic materials and when they burn, the vapors in the air get into our bloodstream. You’ll see when you get out there today that you will be sweating and the pores are going to be opening. If that was real smoke, it would be coming out of your pores for the next three or four days.”

CAFD has a sauna that firefighters use to help cleanse their pores of toxins. Other fire departments are beginning to seriously consider the idea as science catches up with sauna advocates.

Finally, it was time! I quickly hopped into my boots, which were already set up in the pants legs to save time.

When we arrived outside, CAFD Battalion Chief Steve Kolodge gave us a quick rundown of Rescue 1, a heavy rescue unit that responds to vehicle, industrial, water, confined-space and high-level rescue emergencies.

The truck was packed with a multitude of supplies needed in an emergency situation. Everything was very organized and neatly stored in the many drawers and bins in the truck.

I was surprised to find out that when the weather dips below zero, some emergency tools and supplies no longer work, so the responders need to improvise. Even something as simple as velcro adhesive will not stick when it is too cold.

I was proud of myself for not accidently hitting local chiropractor and athlete Jeff Leno on his hand as I swung the ax with all my might and he held the pry bar to open the door of a “building” on fire.

Another thing that never occurred to me was that the air tanks might be a tad bit heavy.

I found out that wearing it was not the most difficult part — it was getting back up after bending down, which we had to do several times.

Leno took the fire hose and went into the burn simulator first and I hustled up the few stairs as quickly as I could wearing roughly 55 to 60 pounds of gear on my 5-foot-2 body.

The building was filled with white theatrical smoke to simulate the visual difficulties encountered by real firefighters when they enter a building.

CAFD has a thermal imaging camera to help a firefighter see through the smoke and find victims 50 percent faster than when they have to blindly feel their way around the building.

When we had crawled through to just look for victims, I discovered I couldn't see anything. Before I could panic too much, Leno turned around and wiped the fog from my mask. Phew.

I had learned my lesson. As I felt my way around the smoke-filled room, I frequently wiped my mask off to look for Leno’s yellow gear to follow. I crawled on my hands and knees on a floor covered in several inches of water into the “living room” where a fake couch was on fire. Leno was being guided by a real firefighter who explained to him how to spray down the fire. After a few minutes it was over and we went back out.

My suit had turned into a sauna. I felt a bit disgusting as I quickly peeled out of my sweaty jacket and grabbed a glass of water.

As we trudged up the stairs of the 4 ½-story Mobile Training Tower, we found our heart attack “victim” lying on a landing with his pants around his ankles.

We were told that this was a common occurrence for the firefighters. When people don't feel well, they head to the bathroom and the paramedics often find them wedged between the toilet and the wall with their pants around their ankles. I am still a bit traumatized over the idea.

The average victim is around 200 pounds, due to the expanding girth of the average American.

We did chest compressions on a dummy with a buzzer that made a noise when you used enough force in the right part of the chest.

We were told that 75 percent of the calls to CAFD are medical-related and 25 percent for fires.

The event was a great combination of educational information, a mix of real life stories and hands-on experience. It was physically demanding and at times I was frustrated by my own strength limitations.

By night time, even though I ached everywhere (except my fingers and toes) I was still sporting a huge grin. I’m glad I had the opportunity to be a firefighter, if only for a day.