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Training prepares firefighters for the real thing

I’m crouched on my knees holding a fire hose in a dark room that’s rapidly filling with smoke. The fire in the middle of the room is making it uncomfortably hot, so I aim the hose at the ceiling, giving it a few quick blasts to cool things down. The temperature drops almost immediately, and I climb to my feet feeling elated. The feeling is short-lived; unbalanced by the 20-pound breathing apparatus strapped to my back, I nearly topple over.

HOT BOX Firefighters train in burn rooms to get an idea of what is going on in the thick of the smoke and flames.
HOT BOX Firefighters train in burn rooms to get an idea of what is going on in the thick of the smoke and flames.

It’s a good thing there are experts on hand. Firefighter Brad Battler offers a steadying hand, and we make our way back out of the smoke-filled building.

Last Sunday, the Wellesley Fire Department held its first fire orientation day at the Waterloo Region Training and Emergency Services Complex. Members of township staff, council and the media had the chance to strap on gear and try some exercises. Firefighters from each of the three stations – Linwood, St. Clements and Wellesley – volunteered their time, as well as a handful of students in Conestoga College’s pre-service firefighter program.

After greetings and a brief history of firefighting – going back to 500 B.C. – from fire chief Andrew Lillico, we headed outside to gear up.

There is no room for vanity in personal protective equipment. By the time we donned the boots, pants, flash hood, coat, helmet and breathing apparatus, we were carrying 50 pounds of gear and were nearly unrecognizable.

Wellesley Mayor Ross Kelterborn and I were first into the fire training building, where firefighters had two fires lit in one of the burn rooms. District chief Rick Steinman tossed some wet straw onto the flames to produce a thick umbrella of smoke that rose to the ceiling and then came back down at us.

At Steinman’s suggestion, I pulled off a glove to feel how much warmer the air is above my head than at ground level.
“And that’s a cool fire,” he said.

When the smoke got too thick, the firefighters pulled open a door and let us blast a stream of water from the fire hose to draw the smoke outside.

The next exercise was vehicle extrication. After we circled the vehicle and chocked the wheels, it was time to break the side windows of the old beater using a window punch. Kelterborn volunteered to go first, providing a novel spectacle: the mayor of Wellesley smashing car windows.

GEARING UP Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Leeanna Pendergast dons a helmet during the Wellesley Fire Department’s orientation day Nov. 15. The helmet belongs to her assistant, Peter McGough, a career firefighter before he retired.
GEARING UP Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Leeanna Pendergast dons a helmet during the Wellesley Fire Department’s orientation day Nov. 15. The helmet belongs to her assistant, Peter McGough, a career firefighter before he retired.

The windshield has a layer of vinyl sandwiched between two layers of glass, so it won’t shatter like the side windows. We used a pick to punch a hole in one corner, then a “can opener” tool to cut along the sides and top.

Then it was time for the Jaws of Life – hydraulic spreaders and cutters. Lillian Pelerigo, the township’s recreation facilities coordinator, manned the spreaders to split open the driver’s side door. I used the hydraulic cutters to sever the hinges so the door could be lifted off.

It was clear that if I wanted to join the fire department, I’d have to start lifting weights. Hefting the cutters was one thing; maneuvering them around the door hinges and lifting them up to roof level was another thing entirely.

Mayor Kelterborn agreed.

“I had a great deal of difficulty handling all that equipment,” he said. “It was an eye-opener for me and I think for the others as well as to the physical work that’s involved in fighting fires.”

The fitness test for firefighters is far more gruelling, explained the Conestoga students.  Would-be firefighters have to complete eight strength and cardio tests within 10 minutes and 20 seconds, while wearing a 50-pound vest.

As we prepared to head to the third exercise – tanker shuttle and portable pump operations – a call from the township dispatch system came over the firefighter’s radios. It turns out I’m going to get to see tanker shuttle in action. As firefighters in Conestogo, Maryhill and St. Jacobs are scrambling into their gear, I’m stripping it off, preparing to head to the blaze to take photos of a real scenario, the blaze that destroyed a barn east of Breslau – the kind of situation firefighters train for.

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