You Never Get Used to It

9:52 a.m.: Dark smoke billows upward and out through the top of the first-floor window frame, curdling the siding and melting the paint into discolored strands. Three groups of firefighters rush toward the front of the apartment complex, carrying ladders, chain saws and hose line. With a crowbar and hammer, two firemen pry and pop the front door off its hinges, while some screw the hose into the hydrant out front, and others plant a ladder and begin their ascent.

9:55 a.m.: The hose is live. With two pulls and a whir, the men on the roof balance with one leg on each side of the precipice and chew through thick shingles. They shatter the first floor windows, raking the crow bar across the icicles of sharp glass.

Cover Story, November 2008
Caroline Berson
Cover Story, November 2008

9:59 a.m.: The smoke ventilates through holes in the roof and out through the broken windows. The fire sputters and submits. The smoke changes from a dark charcoal to amber to winter white.

10:05 a.m.: “All clear,” comes over the walkie-talkie, and Lieutenant Abraham Colon looks at his watch.

Thirteen minutes, he says. Not bad.

***

For the 30 cadets on this on-again-off-again rainy Wednesday morning, this day of their training — called the live fire “evolution” — is an important preparation for their careers as New Haven firefighters. The heat and rage inside the condemned apartment complex are one-tenth the strength of a true fire, but the experience working with smoke is irreplaceable.

During the six-month training program, the cadets must learn how to control structure fires, propane fires and car fires. They complete emergency medical training. They learn how to investigate crime scenes, how to collect evidence, and how to report arson cases.

They must also be able to assess the source of the fire and the type of fire, and they must understand how to deal with various scenarios. For example, propane fires grow when water hits them. So they use the color and shape of the smoke, their intuition, and their nose and eyes and ears to deduce information about the fire. Recent technological improvements provide them with heat sensor cameras, which help them locate a victim or the source of the fire. They practice working as a team, with cadets divided into groups, each assigned under the direction of a seasoned commander.

Over the past two years, ten firefighters from across the country have died during live fire training. But when New Haven firefighters practice this type of evolution, they prioritize the idea of “controlled chaos,” says Colon. They know the layout of the small apartment in advance, before smoke obscures chairs, walls, people, everything. The fires are built using hay and wood and other materials found at the site. There are no burning plastics, no carcinogens.

“We want our cadets to understand what it’s like to be in a burning building where you can’t see the man standing next to you,” Colon says. “But we also want them to be safe. We build hinged windows in the roof and over the windows. In an emergency, we can quickly vent the fire, reducing any danger inside the building.”

***

The second fire starts in the dining room. A single pile of hay and wood and cushions is lit on fire and the flames begin to rage. The cadets stand outside, chomping at the bit, waiting for the go ahead. Upwind of the control station, piles of hay are soaked and lit on fire.

When the metaphorical flag is dropped, the cadets run toward the building. Their suits, now drenched, each weigh upwards of 100 pounds. They climb ladders with an axe in one hand and a saw in the other. There are mosquitoes everywhere. Sweat fogs the inside of their oxygen masks. The humid weather, the intermittent rain, traps moisture in their suits.

The second fire is put out in 11 minutes.

***

Afterwards, the companies cluster in groups of five, standing in tall grass behind the building, assessing their performance and charting out the next fire.

“Good job guys,” one officer says. “Remember, bring the tools to the building first, and then the ladder. You don’t want to be rushing back for tools once the ladder is ready to go.”

These kids are all sharp, Colon explains. This cadet class of 30 was picked from over 1000 applications. They don’t graduate until November, until after they pass a series of practical and written exams administered by the state.

There is a slight lull before the third fire is lit, while some cadets drag burnt hay and cushions out, piling the wreckage. The rest stand around, razzing one another.

“Hilbert is such a complainer,” laughs Lieutenant Michael Blatchley. “I should make him use one of the old oxygen tanks, the heavy ones, the type you would get out of a glass case at a museum.”

Bring it on, Hilbert shouts back.

***

There are 340 sworn personnel in the New Haven Fire Department. Most guys spend an average of 25 years on the line. They work three 10-hour days, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then they have three days off. Then they work three 14-hour nights, from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m., and then they have three days off. Repeat.

“The hours will be one of the toughest parts for the cadets,” says Captain Billy Gould. “You miss birthdays, Christmas, and weekends. It’s a change in lifestyle. You work nights, you work days. It takes a long time to get used to the schedule.”

During their days off, over 50 percent of the firefighters work second jobs as bartenders, as drivers, as traveling firefighter trainers. Pay for the cadets will start around $35,000. Over time, the firefighters will earn a little over $60,000 per year.

***

The third fire is finally lit, and water pressure from the hose blasts open the window shutters. Intensity rises when a shrill chirp goes off inside the building.

“That means ‘guy down,’” explains Pat Egan, union representative, but then “it’s all part of the drill, although the cadets may not realize that. That’s why they’re freaking out in there right now. It’s a personal alert system hooked onto the firefighter’s gear. It goes off when it doesn’t sense movement for 30 seconds.”

The air smells toxic and the floor is soupy. A stream of muddy water carries pieces of burnt hay over the door frame. Debris is everywhere, piles of burnt wood and hay on the left, a Lego piece and pink flashlight lying beneath one of the windows on the right. The firefighters carry out a warped ceiling light, a burnt wooden crate, cushions, and more hay.

Part of this live fire test requires firefighters to find victims and pull them outside to safety. Dummies, representing full-size adult, child, and infant victims, are placed in various locations throughout the apartment complex. They are fire-worn, melted hunks of plastic. Their mouths are formed in perpetual screams of terror. The child dummy has a deep, fire-licked recession in the middle of its chest. The adult wears the torn remains of a firefighter suit, one boot, torn pants.

“The human factor is the most difficult part of the job,” says Egan, flicking the ashes from the tip of his cigarette. “In training, there is no one in the home being burned. The realistic component is the devastation fire causes. The fact is that as heroic and as brave as firefighters are, you don’t get used to anything. You learn to absorb it, to compartmentalize it, but you never get used to it.”

***

As a given, their jobs are tough and their work is dangerous.

“Every time we’re out on call we give up our life,” says Egan. “Whether or not it’s taken? That’s up to God.”

Nowadays, they are required to wear oxygen masks at all times, but that wasn’t always the case. The gear is constantly made better, more effective, lighter, stronger, but the fires are also more dangerous. They risk carbon dioxide inhalation. For years until they retire, they are exposed to burning carcinogens like plastics and synthetics.

“When I was first on the job, I inhaled burning plastic from a Tupperware container burning on the stove,” says Lieutenant Jay Schwartz. “My kid was six weeks old and I was at the hospital for a week.”

“[But] I’m a third-generation firefighter,” he adds. “We thrive on it.”

Yet there are so many elements, from human interaction to nature, that these men will have to get used to. They are trained in emergency medicine for a reason — fire trucks are often the first vehicles not just at burning buildings but also at auto wrecks and other catastrophes. At night, fires light up the street, and there isn’t as much smoke. During the day, you have to work around crowds of people. During the winter, snow covers hydrants, the ground is not always shoveled, and it’s slippery and icy. The water you spray on the fire turns the ground into sheets of ice. The ground isn’t always flat, and there isn’t always room to plant the ladder. You have to squeeze yourself, your ladder, your gear, into strange positions and places.

“During the summer, you have issues of heat and humidity leading to dehydration,” Egan says. “When you’re dealing with 110 degrees outside with the heat and the humidity inside, it’s pretty brutal. You’re working on your knees, but it’s still hundreds of degrees near the floor. We only just started wearing those hoods, the ones that cover your neck and your ears. Before then, your ears would crust. You can’t imagine the incredibly intense pain. But at the end of the day, you keep going forward. You put out the fire because that’s your job.”

***

Wednesday ends after three more fires and extensive clean-up. In exchange for being able to practice on the apartments, the fire department must lug the burnt wooden pallets and hay out to the street. Over the next few months, the apartments will be demolished, and the land converted to some other use — park grounds or more apartments, the firemen speculate.

The entire week is spent practicing on live fires: the first three days on structure fires and the last two on car fires. On Friday, the cadets are split into two groups, with half working on car fires and half practicing on bringing a charged line — an active hose — up three flights of stairs.

“This is the physically hardest exercise we put them through,” says Colon, laughing. “The pressure coming out of the hose is incredible. This kind of thing separated the boys from the men. There are a lot of bruised egos.”

Down at the end of the parking lot, the rest of the cadets practice putting out car fires. The cars have been prepped to make the scenario safer: they remove the gas tanks and drain the liquids out.

Still, “anything could shoot out of these things at any moment,” Egan says.

Today, they fill an old cop car with hay and wooden pallets and light it on fire. The tires pop, the air bags explode. When the fire is hot enough — when the metal frame literally turns pink then red — the cadets move in with hoses and saws and axes.

“Man I love burning these cars,” Schwartz says. “Do you know what happens when cops score three percent points higher on their exams? They send them to firefighter school.”

“He’s joking, but we do get to burn any cars that have a boot on them for more than three days,” says Captain Frank Ricci, also joking.

The cadets disassemble the car as they put out the fire, cutting jagged holes in the roof, smashing axes into the trunk lid, pulling sections of the frame apart, ripping the seats out of the car.

“The last car fire we did was good,” says Blatchley. “We had this amazing black plume. We had to call communications to let them know in case people called the fire in.”

“If we had dogs we would be roasting them right now,” says Schwartz, laughing. “[We] bastards don’t take anything seriously.”

***

While the cadets clean up, the professionals head into a conference room. The table is littered with training papers, Dunkin’ Donuts munchkin boxes, crumpled napkins, half-eaten trays of Oreos, coffee mugs, a pear cake baked by Gould’s wife, Diet Coke bottles, and two empty pizza boxes from Lorenzo’s.

In general, when the firemen have downtime — moments when they are on duty but not on call — the firefighters do house chores like cutting the grass, cleaning, and shoveling snow. At least three hours of their day shift is spent on training and planning. They visit local construction sites and study architectural drawings of multi-use commercial properties. They develop contingency plans. If there’s a fire at Yale-New Haven Hospital, what do you do? Some of the patients can’t be moved. In the hospital labs there are chemicals and other combustibles you wouldn’t be dealing with at a residence. They develop firefighting protocol for a huge range of scenarios.

They study how to approach school bus crashes; investigate an arson scene; break down locked doors that open inward; how to extricate a fallen fireman; and how to deal with chest injuries, spinal injuries, blood.

“I’ve been on the job 21 years and I still open the book every day,” says Gould, and then “every day I read an article, a chapter, because the training never ends.”

***

As Egan noted, textbooks and training can’t teach the cadets how to deal with the human element; that’s something they will have to learn over time. They will eventually develop coping mechanisms, ways to look past the car crashes and house fires.

But still, Ricci explains, anything with pain, with injury, is awful, especially if there are kids involved. There are some scenes you never get used to.

“When I was 18 I responded as an EMT to a community pool,” says Ricci. “A six-year-old boy had drowned. I don’t even remember my wife’s birthday, but I remember that boy. His name was Charlie. Another scene that really affected me was an Amtrak crash in 1993 — 12 kids burned that day.”

“You start making it your scenario, you imagine what it would be like to be the parent of the victim,” says Egan. “Billy was the firefighter who extricated the cop who died a few weeks ago. That was awful. We joke around with one another, but in New Haven, the police department and the fire department work together on a lot of things. Most people have relatives on one and the other.”

“There was also that New Haven kid who died last spring,” says Ricci. “I wasn’t there, but I heard about it. Her boyfriend was driving drunk. One of the firefighters who had been at the scene told me how she was just lying in the car. You could just tell she was deceased. Her phone wouldn’t stop ringing and finally one of the firefighters picked it up and the screen read ‘call home.’ It’s tough, especially when you are dealing with children. There were so many men on that scene and that one thing, that phone, that message, it brought all of them together. You don’t think of that kind of thing, you can’t prepare for the way it hits you. Everyone has coping mechanisms, but when it’s with kids, you can’t disassociate yourself from what’s going on.”

“But, really, the worst parts of the job are the cookies, the donuts, and the candy machines,” says Gould with a slight smile, trying to shift the mood.

***

On November 10, these cadets will graduate, joining the ranks of New Haven’s bravest. Their families will be there, along with the fire chief, people from the mayor’s office, and folks from the union. After the ceremony, 28 will be divided up among the ten stations in New Haven, and two will go to Milford and West Haven.

“They’re gonna learn quickly what a real fire is like,” says Blatchley. “What it’s like to want to crawl through the floor it’s that hot.”

Their units will become second families. When they first go on duty, they will get worked a bit and will get to experience some good old-fashioned, fun traditions. The seasoned firefighters want to see how much the cadets can take, how much they can razz them. They take the wheels off the cadets’ beds so they have to sleep on a slanted surface. They throw water on them in the middle of the night, put flour between the sheets, and that kind of thing.

It’s all part of the ball-breaking mentality of being a firefighter. When they’re on the job, they put their own lives on the line, and they put their families’ wellbeing second to the job. They need to trust one another. They need to know the limitations of the men they work with: whether they will crack under pressure, how they will react in life-and-death situations.

Because that’s their job.

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