Today was crazy.  Four different drills and a little engine company competition at the the end of the day made for quite an eventful Saturday.

The morning started like all Saturday mornings at the Academy, with PT (physical training) and stretches.  From there we get down to business immediately.  Each company rotated through the different drills throughout the course of the day, but of course I’ll tell this as it happened for my group.

concrete tube

Rescue Drill #1 – Confined Spaces

First, East Contra Costa County Battalion Chief, Jeff Burris led us through the ‘confined spaces’ drills.  He showed us a section of concrete pipping that was probably about 15 feet long, but maybe 2 ½ feet wide, and told us to “get through it”.   Of my group, I was one of the bigger guys mainly because I work out a lot and have broad shoulders as a result.  This is important because getting through this section of tubing is no easy task and the wider your shoulders the less room you have to maneuver.

I have to admit, I was nervous just looking at the thing.  It was going to be a super tight fit, there was no question about that.  I just wondered if I’d actually be able to get through it at all, especially with all my gear on!  Edgar Suarez who is my engine company captain, was first in line and headed right in getting on his back, and steadily slinking his way through the tube.  Suarez made it look easy, but he happens to be one of the smaller guys in our group (engines 7 & 8).  Before me a few of the other guys (all smaller than myself) tried Suarez’s ‘on the back’ technique, and a few others went through on their stomachs. A few more guys went and struggled through it, and then it was my turn…

At this point my mind was poisoned with doubt, but there was nothing I could do except get down do it.   I initially tried going in, stomach down and was shocked at how snug and tight the fit was.  I couldn’t move and felt panic rising, but not because of fear of getting stuck, but rather fear that I might not be able to do it.

Thinking that maybe Suarez knew something I didn’t, I backed my body out (at this point my legs hadn’t made it in) and started again on my back.  Again, an amazingly tight fit, but I found I was able to slink through bit by bit with alternating shoulder motions and a bit of footwork.  As I got to the middle and was very aware of how completely wrapped in concrete I was, I knew I had two choices: freak out or stay calm and just work my way through it.

I did reach the end and was hugely relieved to be out and done!  After the rest of the guys made it through it became obvious we were far from done, but first it was Chief Burris’s turn.  Now that we had all struggled our way through the tubing, he explained to us that the key to getting through the tube was to put your arms in front of you, using your forearms as support and to keep your belly off the ground (to avoid friction) while using your feet to help move you along.  Sounds simple and obvious, right?  Not when you’re face to face with becoming a human cork.

Nonetheless, to prove his point Burris got down, slid his helmet in front of him and almost as soon as he’d gone in, he was coming out the other end.  I was truly impressed.  And with that of course, we all went again; but this time on our hands and knees.  I can’t say I found it much easier at the moment, but I did learn to become more relaxed and confident crawling through the tubes.  Eventually we all made it through and moved on to longer and more involved series of tubing, but it was a pretty thrilling experience.  Apparently there were some confined space attic drills too, but my group didn’t get to do that.

Rescue Drill #2 – Moving Heavy Objects



firefighter cadets moving concrete slabsAlameda Firefighter, Thomas Wong ran our next drill which was to essentially move a 4,500 lbs. slab of concrete from one place to another.  Sounds simple except for the 4,500 lbs. part.  This we did slowly and deliberately using cribbing, or wooden blocks (4″x4″ and 2″x4″) stacked in a square framework fashion, and slid underneath the concrete to hold it up.  To get the slabs up, we used giant steel prying bars and as two of us hoisted it up, the cribbers would fill the gaps we made with cribbing.

As a group we were given various positions with one of us being the Incident Commander, one being the Safety Officer, two being lifters, two working as cribbers and after some time in our roles, we’d switch positions.  Danny Saballos started as our groups IC and I started as a lifter.  Eventually, Danny and I switched roles as did others within our group.  By the end of the drill we had completely moved, lifted and lowered the concrete slabs off of their original stack, and into a new location successfully.  This was another fun drill which focused on teamwork and planning.

Rescue Drill #3 – Structure Search

The next drill was the classic residential structure search, and at this point in the day, the sun was at it’s peak.  Fortunately this drill took place in doors.  The house is called the “Roach House”, not because it’s disgusting and full of roaches, but because the family who originally lived there, had the last name ‘Roach’.

Our job was was simply to put our turnouts and SCBA on, wearing our flash hoods backwards so we can’t see, and to search the house for bodies.  The hood is worn backwards so we can’t see as it would be in a highly smoky environment.  In addition, the search is done on our hands and knees as it would be in a real burning building.  In comparison to the heat of a real fire, the sun is not a bad deal.

My search partner was Dante Wiley whose father was the hugely respected Richmond firefighter, Ron Wiley.  Dante and I entered the building with me taking the lead and always maintaining contact with the wall to my left.  Wiley using a length of webbing attached to my gear extended our search by fanning out and covering all mid-sections of any rooms we entered.

blind searchIt’s pretty amazing how big a place can suddenly become when your breathing is restricted and you’re getting hotter and sweatier by the moment, and all the while can’t see a thing around you.  What would otherwise be as familiar a place as any (the inside of a normal home) becomes an unexplored wasteland of corners, crevices and mysteries.

You have to make sure to feel every part of anything you come across because you never know where somebody may have tried to hide or become trapped.  In the case of our search, Wiley and I were looking for a baby which meant even the smallest of spaced needed to be checked.  We searched high and low and in every room for what felt like forever.  Finally, we came across an old boot we had found at the beginning of our search which told us we were back at our original entry point.  At this time our instructor concluded our search with the two of us disappointed for having “failed” to find the victim.

After the next team went in, and Dante and I dehydrated, we learned that the baby dummy we were looking for wasn’t a dummy at all, but a road cone.  Dante Wiley perked up at that and exclaimed “I found that a while ago!”.  As it turned out we found our victim, and didn’t even know it.   We found that “cone shaped baby” as the instructor had described it, but left it where it was for obvious reasons.  I guess we’ll have to work on our listening skills better going forward.

Rescue Drill #4 – RIT & RIC or Rapid Intervention Team/Crew

A RIC is a company of firefighters who are specifically assigned to search and rescue trapped or lost firefighters.  Unless a firefighter is in need of help, the Rapid Intervention Crew is not active.  In this final drill, our group was broken up into 3 sub-groups.  The first were to be citizen victims, the second was the firefighters who were to rescue them and the third group was the RIC team.  I was in the third group.

Fire at the Contra Costa Training Tower

In normal firefighting operations, firefighters always work in teams of two.  You never do anything without your “battle buddy”.  This means that a RIC team needs at least 4 firefighters, or two for each possible downed firefighter.  For the purpose of our drills, we had only teams of two.  My battle buddy here was my team lieutenant, Edgar Suarez.  Our “residential structure” was the Contra Costa County Training Tower in Concord, CA.

The victims were in the basement.  Suarez and I waited outside while the firefighter group went in.   Eventually, we were notified that a firefighter was down.  We headed in, staying low as if there was real heat and smoke to avoid.  Downstairs we went, and though we weren’t blindfolded for this drill, we didn’t need to be.  In the windowless black of the basement, there was no light at all.  We felt our way around and eventually found a foot.  The foot led to a body which I hoped might be on a the smaller side.

My hopes were tossed aside as the “downed firefighter” turned out to be Terry “Angel” Zapata, who is anything but small.  At 215 lbs, plus turnouts and SCBA, Zapata is no light load.   Fire instructors will often tell you that in a fire, it may take 2-3 firefighters to rescue a citizen, but it will take as many as 12 to rescue a downed firefighter.   I don’t know the specifics as to how that number was arrived upon, but I will say that by the end of this drill I felt as though I had done the work of 12 men.

RIC operationsRescuing Angel Zapata wouldn’t be so bad, were Angel to occasionally use a leg for a little push…. maybe make a lurching motion in the direction we were going… or even just lift an arm so we might get a better grip on him.  Unfortunately for Suarez and I, Angel plays a downed fire fighter with worthiness of an Oscar winner.   He was pure dead weight, and we felt every ounce.

Pulling a downed firefighter in tight dark quarters is tough enough, but getting a firefighter up a narrow stairway is even harder.  For anybody who’s done the CPAT, you know what pulling a 165lbs. dummy feels like, and that’s in optimal conditions without gear on, and on a smooth surface.

By the time Edgar and I had gotten Angel to the top and out the door, I was as winded, exhausted and downright spent as I could be.  Being that our BA’s don’t work, the SCBA masks make breathing even more difficult and by the time I reached the top and had dragged Angel outside, I was toast!  I got my turnout top open as quickly as possible, but was too worked over to get my helmet, flash hood or SCBA off.   Fortunately for me, Eisho Suzuki, Lieutenant of Engine 8 saw my distress (and believe me – I was distressed!) and helped free me from my gear.  Suzuki was in the next RIC team and I was able to repay the favor when he emerged with his victim.

RIC operations 2

After all the drills were done and we we’d finished cleaning up our stations Captain Grillo set up a little engine company competition.  There were to be four sets of two teams competing against one another in a 4 step firefighter challenge.  It went like this:

  1. Hose Race – With live hoselines firing full blast, two cadets had to race one length of hose (approx. 50 feet).
  2. Hammer Swing – Get to the waiting sledgehammers and strike a tire ten times.
  3. Stair Climb – Pretty simple really.  Get to the tower stairs, go three flights up.  (Not sure if this truly counts as a step)
  4. Tool Hoist – Once on the third floor, we had to hoist a chainsaw up and then back down without slipping and in the proper manner.

After the tool hoist, you had to get back down as quickly as possible and make it back to your team first and then the next person would go until all four members of each engine company had gone.  My Engine 7 was of course against our frequent partners in Engine 8.  It was a good race and Engine 8 put up an admirable fight, but of course Engine 7 (with me in anchor) won the battle.  …of course.

**Engine 8, if you have anything to say about this, please feel free to reply below.  Also, if any of the other engine companies have any fun highlights from their competitions, please tell about them below.

It was a long day, but ton’s of fun and we all got some great experience that day.  I’m looking forward to more.