This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Beauty,Spring 2005
Fifth Web Papers
On Serendip

Out of the Smoke: The Beauty of Fighting Fire

Catherine Davidson

The crisp October air nipped at the skin on my neck as I huddled inside my sweater while I watched a group of Bryn Mawr fire fighters demonstrate to the community techniques they use to put out a structure fire. One of my Haverford friends was a fire fighter with Bryn Mawr and wanted me to stop by for their open house. They drenched a small house structure built of plywood in gas and set it to flames. Within seconds it was engulfed in fire, the flames danced on the rooftop and the sound of sirens suddenly started. One of the fire trucks raced to the scene, eight fire fighters and two chief¡¯s assisted in knocking the fire down. Five minutes later the fire was out: mission complete. I stood there shivering; more interested in picking out and admiring the attractive firemen than actually watching the fire and wondered when my friend would give me the o.k. to leave. I reluctantly accepted, with crushed hopes of leaving and doing something more interesting, like watch a movie, or sleep. I sat through friendly small talk and enjoyed the company of these local heroes. They seemed so close, like a family. I admired photos they had hung on the wall of fires they had responded to as I listened to some of their on scene war stories. My curiosity in fire fighting was peaked after visiting with the fire fighters and I contemplated joining. I was not sure, however if I really had what it takes to work as a fire fighter. I thought for a few days about joining, and the next week I found myself back at the firehouse for my first fire fighting drill.

The evening of the drill, my Haverford friend picked me up from my dorm. My body was running high on anxiety and it took a lot of effort to keep my hands from shaking with nervousness. We walked into the fire station and a group of guys hanging at the counter waiting for the chief to officially call drill greeted us. Some had recognized me from the open house and few even remembered my name. My friend introduced me to those that had not met me and referred to me as a ¡°new member¡±. I was not yet sure if I really wanted to join and felt uncomfortable with his presumptuous introductions. He started familiarizing me with fire fighter vocabulary when the head chief walked in and called drill. He said hello and told one of the fire fighters to get me a jacket. I would not be doing any firefighting that night, but the experience would bring be back again the next week.

I was assigned to the engine truck. I hopped on with seven fire fighters and smashed myself between two of them. Everything moved so quickly. Once I finally figured out how to put my seat belt and headset on, we had almost arrived to the drill site. As we approached the burn tower, the fire fighters around me started calling off numbers. I could see the smoke flowing out of the tower structure and once the struck stopped, the fire fighters rushed out of the truck and one of the chiefs told me to follow him. As though we were at the site of a fire emergency, firefighters put on SCBA breathing apparatuses (masks and oxygen tanks to aid in respiration), grabbed hose, and rushed into the building. The piercing sirens hurt my ears and the smoke emitted from the building started irritating my lungs. I was fascinated but intimidated by the intensity of the fire fighters and the rate at which they moved. After watching the firemen at the drill, everything seemed so complicated and they moved so quickly. I questioned my potential as a fire fighter.

The next afternoon I found myself on the tennis courts for team practice. I served the ball to my teammate to begin a challenge match that would determine out position on the team ladder. My focus was necessary in this match. I wanted to win. All of a sudden, the fire sirens went off, took my attention away from tennis and an indescribable adrenaline rush ran through my body. I wanted to drop my racket and spring to the firehouse but could not. For a couple minutes, I was distracted and could not focus on my game. The experiences at the op en house came back to mind, I could smell the smoke again, and Dewey¡¯s emphasis on emotions as playing a big role in experiences proved true. I tried to explain what was going on to my teammate and took a short break. I t was at this point I knew I was attached and had plans to continue fire fighting.

I continued to attend drills, learning the names and uses for all parts of the fire engines and truck, working on different techniques and procedures used for extinguishing fires and became well acquainted with the job of every rookie: packing hose. Packing hose involves draining all the water out of each section of hose, connecting the lines and neatly folding them onto the bed of the fire truck. Yes, this job is a lot of work, causes sore muscles that are felt for a few days after and is the least favorite job of everyone in the fire service. Nonetheless if you want to get anywhere in the fire service, you start with hose packing. Not to worry, the hose packing paid off. The next time the fire company was scheduled to drill at the burn tower, I was allowed to go in. If I did not have nerves at my first drill, I really had them now. All the way to the site I anticipated what was about to happen. I had only been with the company for a couple months and was not sure what I would be doing. We stopped and as the first time, everyone rushed out of the truck, packed with air tanks, breathing apparatuses and ran to the back of the engine with tools. The fire fighters from the engine and the truck reconvened by the burn tower where the chief stood giving orders. I felt the familiar adrenaline rush from the tennis courts and was prepared when the chief told me to gear up.

The chief informed me I would be going into the tower, leading a group of fire fighters to perform a fire fighter search and rescue. I was handed a thermal imaging camera that I was vaguely familiar with, and an axe. The signal was given and I, along with three other fire fighters raced up the metal stairs to the second floor of the building. I nonchalantly walked into the building and immediately realized I could see NOTHING. The fire fighter behind me yelled to get down on the floor and start moving forward. He grabbed me foot and followed me forward as I ran into walls and other obstacles in the middle of the floor. With one hand occupied by the camera, and the other hand occupied by the axe, I struggled through the building. I heard the ringing sound of a fire fighter¡¯s air pack. This was the fire fighter we had come in to save. I looked through my mask at the thermal imaging camera to guide me through the dark, smoky room and realized I could not see the camera. I was completely blind. The smoke from the room had fogged up my mask but I had to keep moving. I did not know how to de-fog my mask. Since I could not see anything, I relied upon my ears to lead me to the fallen fire fighter. I had remembered learning always to keep a hand on the wall when doing a search and rescue. I kept my right hand on the wall until I heard the fallen fire fighter¡¯s alarm directly across the room from me. I let go of the wall to follow the sound. The fire fighter behind me let go of my foot. We found the fire fighter and hot him out of the structure. A paid fire fighter from Philadelphia who had formerly been a volunteer with Bryn Mawr came to help us. He had followed us into the burn tower and talked tome when we got out. I had done a million things wrong.

I was sent back into the tower for a second time to practice putting out a fire. This drill went a little more smoothly but even so, I still felt the weight of being a rookie. A little embarrassed by my poor performance during the search and rescue, I ignored the irritated expression on the faces of the other fighters that had gone into the tower with me and started asking questions. I sucked my crushed pride and accepted I would simply have to perform better next time. The mood of the crowd lightened and once the other crews came back from their tower drill; we packed hose and went homes. I returned to my dorm room exhausted. My lungs hurt, my eyes were sore, and all moisture had been sucked from my skin. I drank a gallon of water and passed out on my bed.

I had avoided telling my parents about my participation in firefighting for a few months. I wanted to make sure I was going to stick with it but once I decided I wanted to become a fire fighter, I was afraid to tell them. What would they say? I was certain they would not like it. To my family, I was a ¡°closet fire fighter¡±. How would I come out? I decided on winter break as a great time to drop the ball. I was just past the entrance of the largest mall in our area when I whispered to my dad, so what my mother would not hear, ¡°What do you think about fire fighting¡±? My father asked me why I was asking this question. I told him I was not sure why I was asking, I guess I was just curious to know what he thought about the subject. He stopped and looked at me. I whispered, ¡°What would you say if I told you I was a fire fighter¡±? I smiled at him and in this calm moment, I prepared for the storm. I figured the mall was a convenient place to tell him though, that way, with so many pep le around during the holiday shopping season, they would not make a scene. Surprisingly, my dad did not mind. He asked about safety factors and once I reassured him that fire fighters stick together and every possible precaution is taken to protect my safety, he really did not give much more of a response than, ¡° that¡¯s cool¡± and asked a few more questions. I waited to tell my mother though, until we were in the car alone together a week or so later. I asked her if dad had talked to her about ¡°the fire fighting thing¡±. She said no and asked me what I was talking about. I told her and she surprisingly encouraged me. She said something about how it was great for me to be gaining practical skills and working with people in the ¡°real world¡± to complement my intellectually stimulating Bryn Mawr education. Ok, so I had the family¡¯s approval and looked forward to returning the fire fighting after break.

The other day I was at the fire company practicing with equipment and tools. As I was taking apart, putting together, and hooking hose line up to the engine, the siren went off. I quickly took everything apart, put it away and reported to the radio room to start filling out paper work. A senior fire fighter was in there writing down information on the location of the call and told me to gear up and get on the truck. I sprinted to the rack that holds my gear and quickly suited up. Without much time to think I hoisted myself into the engine cabin and anxiety overwhelmed me. Everything happened so quickly. I realized what was going on when one other fire fighter jumped in the engine and we rode off to the call. There were only four fighters responding to the scene on the engine, including myself. I did not know what to expect at the scene and was nervous. When we arrived on scene there was a bit of smoke arising from the base of a little tree. The chief called for pressurized water. The other fire fighter responded to this order and the fire concern was taken care of. We went home. The adrenaline was still running high through my veins and I could not believe I had actually been sent on a call. Though it many not sound exciting to many, being assigned to respond to a cal is a big deal for a training member of a fire company.

Why did you become a fire fighter? This is a favorite question of the Montgomery County Fire Academy instructors. The worse response one can give is, ¡°to serve the community¡±. An answer like that seems a bit self indulged and will get a sarcastic response from the instructor and the question will be repeated. Who is a fire fighter? I joined the fire service for friends. It was a friend that introduced me to the fire service, and at rough times, it has been friends that have kept me in the fire service. The main purpose of fire fighters though is to put out fires. What type of person wants to rush into a burning building and fight a fire? And without pay? I have not met one person so far that joined the fire service with a wish to die, even though we are constantly reminded, especially in fire training courses at the Academy, that a million combinations of mistakes or omissions could lead to our death or the death of a fellow fire fighter. Some aspects of this adrenaline rush, of being in such an unpredictable business are what make it amazing, as Fisher describes the beauty in the wonder of a rainbow, its uniqueness, suddenness, unexpectedness. Every fire call is different. A fire company could be dispatched for a simple fire alarm and once arriving on scene, may discover and actual structure fire.

The exhilaration and adrenaline rush from fire fighting is insurmountable. I have attended a few fires, very recently. The feeling I have experienced so far from working with other fire fighter, to take down a fire is amazing. Fire is the cause of widespread destruction. In some fire instances, take for example natural environments, a fire occurrence actually helps stabilize the ecosystem and is a necessary disturbance. However, often times in the material world, fire can mean great financial devastation, the loss of lives and precious memories. Fire consumes everything in its path, doubling in size every thirty to sixty seconds. In order for a fire to live, it requires heat, fuel, oxygen, and an ignition source. So, to put out a fire, one of these sources must be eliminated. The satisfaction in fire fighting is obtained through overcoming such a powerful phenomenon as fire. Fire fighting can be looked upon as similar to the beauty Hoffmann describes, ¡°Beauty is created out of the labor of human hands and minds. It is to be found, precarious, at some tense edge where symmetry and asymmetry, simplicity and complexity, order and chaos, contend¡± in the tense power struggle between the fire and the fire fighters.

In class, we performed and discussed chemical reactions. Some people enjoyed the simplicity of watching the experiment and its consequences, others asked questions and sought answers to figure out what was happening and why. I started with absolutely no knowledge, and although I am not yet on the hose list, I have much more knowledge about fire fighting than I did when I began and this knowledge has helped me not only appreciate and respect fire more, it has enhanced my respect for those who fight fires. People in society are quick to judge and many do no appreciate the challenge of fighting fire. I can honestly say, learning how to be a fire fighter has been the most difficult experience I have ever had. Firefighting involves much more than pulling a hose off a fire truck and putting out a fire. It involves reading the activity of a fire, being aware of the chemistry of a fire to be able to predict what it is going to do and its hazards , as well as procedure and techniques of how to fight a fire and perform search and rescue. The list goes on but fire fighting is much more complex than commonly though.

The importance of knowledge to fire fighting is similar to Dewey¡¯s emphasis on immersion for full experience. My Deweyesque immersion in the fire service, perception, and participation thereof has enhanced my experience. I began as a spectator at a Bryn Mawr Fire Company open house, watching the fire fighters knock down a structure fire. Through struggle and uncertainty of my abilities, I reached the unexpected conclusion, probably as unexpected as Hoffmann¡¯s rainbow that I did in fact want to be a fire fighter. It has been a challenge. From trying to enter a profession intensely dominated by men, to stretching to my physical limitations carrying twenty-four foot ground ladders alone, I have learned a lot and have had to deal with success and setbacks. Frida Kahlo went through great struggle in her life; hopefully more than I will ever have to live with. She expressed her pain through her paintings, which are appreciated and considered beautiful by many around the world. The struggle I have experience through fire fighting has allowed me a greater satisfaction when my team and I succeed, and helps me appreciate the profession to a much greater extent.

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