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County Councilmen Experience Life As a Firefighter

Three members of the Anne Arundel County Council spent the day rescuing dummies, cutting open cars and putting out fires as part of Fire Ops 101 class.

In a dark, smoke-filled building, County Councilman Jerry Walker crawled across the floor. Drenched in sweat, he heard the fire crackle but couldn't see it burning as he groped for the edges of the room.

Finally, Walker's hands locked on the 125-pound rescue dummy, and he helped carry it to safety.

"It felt like twice that," Walker said. "I can't imagine carrying out a guy like myself who is 250 pounds."

Walker and two other council members saved mannequins, manned fire hoses and cut open cars as part of an educational class with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department at its Millersville training facility Friday.

Fire Ops 10 marked the first time county firefighters have hosted a class for lawmakers, but the idea came from similar events staged by the International Firefighters Association.

The department paired each council member with a seasoned firefighter who guided the member through five hours of intense training while wearing 55 pounds of gear.

Councilman Peter Smith, who served as a Marine for 14 years, was comfortable with the search and rescue portion because he said it's something he's done before.

"The biggest difference is the smoke," Smith said. "Even in my environment, when there are rounds going off and bombs exploding, the dust settles. In the smoke you lose all visibility."

He was also surprised by how quickly the temperature, which climbed above 1200 degrees, sapped his strength.

The visibility inside the burn building is excellent compared to a real house fire, said Lt. Tim Kernan. Plastics, televisions and other household items burn to create a dense, black haze that eliminates nearly all visibility. Firefighters figure out where they are in a home and locate victims by touch.

"We do a lot of training with blacked-out masks," Kernan said. 

"The one thing we can't re-create is the sound—the creaking, the cracking," Lt. Keith Jones said. "Every time you hear that noise, you know it's the building failing."

For Councilman Derek Fink, the building was real enough. He said being inside made him think, "This is what hell must be like."

Keith Whalen, vice president of the county's firefighter union that organized the event, said he hoped the experience would give lawmakers a more clear understanding of the to day-to-day challenges faced by county firefighters.

"Right now our staffing level is very low," Whalen said. "We've lost 100 firefighters since 2009."

Whalen said years of lower wages and longer hours have drained some of the morale and talent from the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

"People are training with us and going elsewhere for more stability," Wahlen said.

Walker said allocating the budget is tricky because most of the money is tied up in personnel costs. He joked that soon the council will host a County Council 101 class in which the firefighters will listen to the requests of all the departments and decide how best to "divide up the pie."

Walker, Smith and Fink acknowledged that they will take lessons learned from being a firefighter for a day back with them to council.

"To say that this is going to dramatically change every vote that I have from here on out probably wouldn't be accurate," Walker said. But, "I will definitely think twice about making quick decisions when it comes to doing something to reduce the size of the fire department."

Ella Vader September 30, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Interesting article. Just wondering if other journalists took part in this activity with the Councilmen? Also, if someone (perhaps Anna) could elaborate on the purpose of having journalist(s) and local representatives partake in these activities I would really appreciate it. Fantastic pictures, if must have been really exciting!
D. Frank Smith (Editor) October 01, 2012 at 02:14 AM
Ella, I'm sure Anna could elaborate, but I think the reason that these exercises are done is to educate the public on what the life of a firefighter is like. It's sort of the same thing as a police ride-along, only this is even more hands-on.
jesse55jp October 02, 2012 at 12:02 PM
They should have been allowed to ride Paramedic 26 or 18 for 24 hours as well.

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