Friday, February 18, 2011

Texas Fire School - A Student's Perspective by Bobby Brown

My name is Joe Average Student and this is my story.

It’s Saturday in late July around noon as I step off the plane in Houston. I have traveled the two hours from Atlanta on my very first airplane flight. It was a little scary to begin with, but it turned out to be rather exciting. If I hadn’t been the middle seat in a 900 pound sandwich, I may have enjoyed it more. I have to remember to fire my travel agent when I get home.

At the baggage claim area, I gather up my luggage and my firefighting gear bag that seems to weigh 300 pounds. You mean I have to lug this huge bag around all week? As I step out of the terminal to catch the rental car bus, the heat smacks me in the face like a jealous girlfriend. Whoever told me this was supposed to be a ‘dry’ heat should be here today. An oven is dry heat too, but that doesn’t mean I want to sit my fat butt in one. The sign on the bus said the outside temperature is 105 degrees. It may be hotter here than in Georgia.

We get our rental car and make the 2 hour drive from Houston to College Station. Since it is my first time in Texas, I half-seriously think to myself ‘Where are all the tumble weeds, cactus, and gunslingers?’ Must be more west of here.

College Station is bigger than I thought it would be. Nice restaurants are all around. We check in our hotel and start ‘hydrating’ as our Chief had preached to us the entire month before we came out here. He also said “You must hydrate with water, beer doesn’t count!”

Saturday evening is a free night for us so we go to a popular steakhouse where the smallest steak is two pounds. Of course, one of the guys with us (7 of us in all) decides he will be the macho man and order the LARGEST steak on the menu which is a whopping 5 pounds and could easily feed a small country. His comes out on a platter the size of a lid from a 55 gallon drum. The rest of us order the small T-bone and finish long before he does. I’m sitting directly across the table from him and surely in the line of fire should he accidentally decide to “unswallow.” But he manages to eat the whole thing and keep it down. Now he suffers from some sort of meat poisoning (not a real thing, I don’t think) causing his stomach to swell and ache. Did he not see that coming? He will definitely regret it later, especially given the half bottle of hot sauce he used.

Sunday morning we get up and have a late breakfast (except the goober that ate the 5 pound steak. His stomach still hurts along with other things) then we head over to the Brayton Fire Training Field to register for our classes. There we get a student manual that’s about 6 inches thick. I have to know all this stuff by Friday? And I have another 50 pounds to lug around with my 300 pound gear bag? There’s also talk of a test. Crap. I forgot about the test.

Oh yeah, and we hydrate. With water.

Sunday night back at the hotel, we grab a light dinner then off to our separate rooms to bed. Nervous and sleepless, I lie there thinking what is tomorrow going to be like? What have I gotten myself in to? I’ve heard some great stories about this training and some horror stories too. I toss and turn, but finally get settled down and relaxed. Crap, now I have to pee.

Monday morning arrives very early. With barely any sleep, we all grab breakfast and hydrate. We arrive at the fire field by 6:30 a.m. to get a decent parking spot. Lugging our gear, we assemble for an orientation in the fire station. After the National Anthem, all the students break up into groups or sections of about 16-20 people each. In my section are all of my coworkers and 10 firefighters from other industries that I don’t know. All together there are about 800 students here and about 150 instructors. This is the biggest and greatest fire training school in the world. It is so huge it seems about the size of Disney World. But there’s nothing Mickey Mouse about this place.

As we walk onto the field we see the Instructor Memorial Wall and flowers. Engraved on the large walls are all the instructor’s names at this school that have passed away over the years. Numerous students and instructors stop by to read the names on the wall and pay their respects. It is evident that this is a very special and emotional spot on this fire field.

As we arrive at our first fire project, we get to know our fellow firefighters in our section from other industries. We introduce ourselves, share a little about our background and fire experience. You start to think to yourself, “How good are these guys? Should I be intimidated? Can I trust them?” The two guys sitting next to me don’t even speak English. Um, I’m not really sure, but I don’t think that is a good thing.

The Instructors begin the class with the lecture about the project and I quickly realize these instructors are the real deal. They are experienced and know what they are talking about. They are from all over the world and have seen and heard a lot. They describe the importance of safety on the field and the heat related issues, such as staying hydrated. They say the fires will be very large and as long as we work together as a team we can put them out.

Rumors quickly traveled the field that, already this morning, some rookie firefighters from a foreign country watched as the first fire was lit, then screamed some unintelligible gibberish and ran off the field because they were shocked and frightened out of their minds (we later found out, it wasn’t a rumor at all, it was a fact).

My stomach is now turning flips and making strange sounds. I’m not sure if it is nerves or that three-cheese, three-egg omlette I had for breakfast.

Ok, here we go. The talking is over. We get geared up and ready to go. My heart is thumping out of my chest. This project, or prop as they call it, is three stories tall with 100 ft. columns on each end and pumps and valves everywhere. The instructor lights the fuel which seems to be leaking from every single nut and bolt out there. The flames roar and shoot about 300 feet into the air with smoke rising an additional 300 ft. higher. More fires erupt at other props behind me, and all around me. I look around and the whole fire field is on fire. The whole state of Texas seems to be on fire. Stupid me, I forget to put my face-shield down and the heat from the flames stings my face and is unbearable. Red-faced for two reasons, I quickly flip it down and get ready.

Bobby Brown is the center firefighter in this photo of the Industrial School 2009.
It’s only 7:30 a.m. and I’m pouring sweat already. 'HYDRATE' they said, now I see why. I’ve got the nozzle in my hand and two of my coworker firefighters are backing me up on our hose line. In all there are 8 hose lines ready to advance on this fire. With flames everywhere, and pressurized propane leaking so loud you can’t think, my line Instructor shouts “OK! Get ready to go upstairs!” Wait, What?!? Did he say “GO UPSTAIRS?” There’s fire everywhere up there and we are going up into it? You've got to be kidding!

Courtesy of
Thoughts of all the things I’ve never had a chance to do in my life go through my mind. I’ve never been to Hawaii. I’ve never owned a trampoline. I’ve never rode a bull, been parachuting, or even seen a fainting goat in person. I've never seen Elvis live in concert. Now I’m not going to get the chance to do any of them.

As all hose teams advance in, the lower level ground fire is quickly under control with foam (but not completely out). We start up the stairs, and I’m thinking, shouldn’t that fire be all the way out before we go up? Are we sure we have enough water? Can’t we stay on the ground? Does anybody want to change places? This is a mighty small stream of water I’ve got here and there’s a lot of fire ahead of me. As we top the stairs, there is fire in all directions. Like a large flame-thrower, a stream of fire knifes straight toward us. My water nozzle pattern holds it back…so far. Thank God for water.

The instructor yells at me to do something, but I can’t hear him because of all the high pressure fires leaking from all these valves. There must be 50 valves leaking. He makes eye contact with me and signals me to step closer. Wait, what? CLOSER? Is this guy insane? If I get any closer I’m gonna be the largest flame broiled steak in Texas. My shoulders are already getting very hot through my bunker coat. Another hose team line has come upstairs to assist us. I look over at them and steam is rising off their jackets. This is getting a little unnerving. The instructor yells again for us to move closer to the leaking valve. 

So, we start to move in closer…but…we don’t move. Wait, are my legs and feet locked up? Am I losing my composure right here in front of everybody? Did I just pee myself? No, it appears we have run out of hose. I look back down towards the ground and see that our hose has become tangled and kinked. On top of everything else, we are now losing water pressure. Does anyone else smell something burning? Are my eyebrows on fire?

On the ground, a firefighter rushes to our hose to untangle it. Our lives are depending on him. It seems like an eternity. Man, please hurry. Oh no…Isn’t that one of the guys who doesn’t speak English? We are toast, he will never understand what we need. But, proving me completely wrong, just in the nick of time, as the fire starts to break through our water pattern, he gets our hose un-kinked and our water pressure restored. He did it. He signals up a thumbs-up and I give him the thumbs-up back…thank you man, thank you. Hmm…In the midst of disaster, I guess you don’t have to speak the same language to work together, huh?

Back to the problem at hand. We move in closer to capture and control the flames with our water pattern. Closer now, we position our water spray pattern on the leaking flange to capture it and allow just the valve handle to be exposed so the instructor can make the closure. Be very still. Don’t move a muscle. One wrong move now and we are crispy memories. Flames are on both sides of my water pattern begging to get to us. Finally, the instructor has the valve closed and the leak is depressuring.

It gets a little quieter. I look over at the team next to us and they are making a valve closure. On the deck below us, several more valve closures are taking place. I look around and all the fires are finally out. We all worked together and extinguished all these fires. WOW, that was intense! We cool down the area for hot spots.

Carefully we back down the stairs, and with everyone on the ground floor, we roll up all the hoses and clean up. There’s high fives all around and appreciation everywhere. Everyone is proud and we all have a sense of accomplishment. Our confidence level just went up 100 percent. THAT was really fun! We take our gear off and grab some water, hydrate, and take a short break. Now it’s time to move to the next project.
OK, we made it through hour number one. Only seven more hours and four more days to go.

Instructor 1081 Exterior,
Industrial School
Originally posted by Bobby Brown on his blog, Wet Stuff on the Red Stuff on Sunday, January 30, 2011. Bobby has participated as a guest instructor at the Industrial Fire School. Our thanks to him for his permission to use this blog on our site.


Sam White said...

What a great experience. Even better, thousands of folks like you get to experience the same good training at the Brayton Fire Training Field. Thanks for re-blogging!

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