To Serve and Protect

Trainees from the NFD work in the blind to practice search and rescue.

You cannot appreciate the difficulty of a firefighter’s job until you have witnessed them crawling through a house with full gear, blinded, reaching out with their remaining senses trying to locate a possible victim.

This was the scene I had the privilege to witness last week when the NFD held a practical search and rescue training session at a donated home.

To simulate the conditions of working in the dark in a smoke-filled structure, the trainees were blindfolded. I don’t know about you, but I can barely walk through my bedroom in the dark, so I can’t imagine what it was like to work blindfolded in a strange home looking for a rescue dummy. Add to that a full facemask and a respirator and someone like me who is just slightly claustrophobic, would be curled up in the fetal position totally freaking out!

I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for the men and women, who put their lives on the line to rescue, protect or serve others. Whether they serve with fire, police, emergency medical or the armed services, these people put others before even their own health and safety out of an extreme sense of honor – and compassion. After watching the firefighters from NPD work in extreme weather conditions to further their training, I’m even more in awe of them.

While I watched these men put on their full (and hot) fire gear, which included hoods, facemasks and respirators, I commented to their captain that this must be really tough considering the temperature (the heat index was still at 109 at 7 p.m.). He looked at me with a “this is what we do” expression and reminded me that usually there was also a blazing fire. Now, I was sweating just standing there, but as I watched these men, who were already soaked with sweat,  put on their gear, I didn’t hear any complaints. I also didn’t see any looks of contempt on their faces; instead, what I saw was anticipation. Anticipation to get in there and learn how to do the job well.

While I photographed them crawling through the broken down house that had seen other days of intense training, I watched them systematically search the home to locate the suspected victim. Although the guys knew that the house was not really on fire and that the “victim” was a 189-pound rescue dummy, they attacked the job with unwavering dedication. Once located, the victim had to be extricated the fastest way possible; sometimes that meant through the same route the firefighters had entered and sometimes it meant out through the nearest window or wall.

It wasn’t glamorous like is often depicted on film and there were no “beauties” waiting to express their undying gratitude. No, these guys were met by their co-workers and trainers offering them a bottle of water or Gatorade and sometimes, when it got bad enough – by the EMTs to give them fluids in other forms. Still, as soon as the first team was finished, the next team was gearing up to take their turn – all to make sure that when an actual search and rescue scenario presented itself, they would be ready.

For me, the only scary part of my experience was when I realized that I had backed into a room followed by a blind firefighter who was searching the area by sweeping the floor with a tool that looked like a cross between a pick axe, crowbar and a hatchet. I was genially concerned for the bones in my ankles. But I had nothing to fear, as the captain safely guided me out of harms way.

The experience will stay with me for quite some time as will my admiration for the men who work and volunteer for the NFD and for that matter, anyone who signs up to “serve and protect.”

Look but don't touch! Fire is both beautiful and dangerous. From my Fire Series.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Rebekah
    Jul 27, 2010 @ 16:49:55

    great story! love the pics


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