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Trial by Fire

Hill Staffers Learn to Fight Fires Through Congressional Institute

Few things bring a group of strangers together quicker than a wall of scorching flames and a room quickly filling with thick smoke.

It’s a lesson that 40 or so wide-eyed Congressional staffers learned first-hand when they recently stepped into a “burn building” at the Congressional Firefighter Training Program, a one-day educational event for Hill staff sponsored by the Congressional Fire Services Institute on Oct. 28.

Dressed in 40 pounds of “turn-out” equipment — including flame-resistant pants, boots, jacket, gloves, hood and the standard firefighter helmet — and breathing through oxygen masks, small groups of six or seven staffers strode into the dark structure at the

University of Maryland’s Fire and Rescue Institute. Guided by red flares and the muffled voices of instructors explaining search and rescue patterns, participants, who might be handling a constituent phone call or sorting office mail on a normal work day, took their places on hose lines and nervously watched as the doors to the room creaked closed around them.

“You can read as many documents as you want, but you don’t really know what it’s about until you put on the gear and smell the smoke,” said Bill Webb, executive director of the CFSI, a nonprofit policy institute that works closely with the Congressional Fire Services Caucus to raise awareness of fire service issues on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a mind-blowing experience,” Webb said of the annual program at the University of Maryland facility where the Capitol Police hazardous material team comes to train. “Hollywood glamorizes the experience; this gives you a new perspective.”

As one staffer who works on fire issues for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said after strapping on his equipment, “It gets a little more real now.”

When it was their turn to enter the burning building, one group — made up of two committee staffers, two House staffers and one trade group representative — began to huddle a little bit closer together and exchange wary looks as two instructors began stacking bales of hay against the wall near the entrance to the room. The sound of bottled air being sucked in began to noticeably increase as MFRI personnel began to touch lit flares to the dry stacks of hay.

Already today the five staffers had learned how to handle a hose line in fighting gas fires, made use of hand-held extinguishers and removed the roof from a Mercury Grand Marquis with “jaws of life” and cutter extraction equipment.

For Chan Lieu, who works for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the experience was a bit of a dream come true.

“When I was younger I always wanted to be a fireman,” he said.

But for Deirdre Walsh, a staffer in the office of Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), it wasn’t exactly what she expected.

“I never thought I’d make a car into a convertible,” she said.

As they had made their way through the day’s various exercises, one of this group’s many instructors had been Patrick Gavin. Gavin, 25, is a volunteer firefighter in Owego, N.Y., who is also a former staffer for Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), as well as a former Hill intern. He comes from a family of firefighters that includes his great-grandfather, grandfather and two brothers. His father died in the line of duty while fighting a lumber yard fire last fall. Having been a volunteer firefighter since he was 16, Gavin currently works in the Presidential Management Fellows Program and goes home every other weekend to volunteer.

“These people are sitting behind desks,” Gavin said of the staffers at the MFRI program. “They’ve never done this and they are working with first responders every day. This gives them a first-hand perspective.”

And the experience was a literal trial by fire.

As the entire wall in front of them quickly went up in flames and a curtain of smoke began slowly descending from the ceiling, Walsh, Lieu and the rest of their group instinctively began to hunch down toward the floor. Visibility above the smoke level dropped to almost zero and the heat of the fire could be felt first in places such as the wrist and neck, where equipment comes together.

Over the the roar of the spreading fire and the sound of personal locators beeping every few seconds, even more muffled voices of instructors began calling for the hoses to be let loose. As the staffers braced against the force of water, ash and sizzling embers mixed with the smoke filled air. The entire team then dropped to their knees in order to communicate with each other below the haze.

Gary Warren, the lead instructor at the MFRI, then brought out a thermal imaging camera to demonstrate how new technology is changing the face of modern fire fighting.

The small hand-held device cut through the smoke and showed the room as bright as if it were bathed in daylight. The camera was so sensitive, instructors explained, that it could detect the imprint of a hand on a wall. Whereas before firefighters would have to search a smoke-filled room by touch, this $10,000 piece of equipment allows a room to be cleared in seconds. The problem, Warren said, is that most departments are lucky if they have even one thermal imaging camera. The equipment’s hefty price tag has slowed its spread to underfunded departments.

As the doors opened to the burn room and instructors aired out the structure to prepare for the next group of Congressional participants, the five staffers helped each other remove their breathing tanks and chatted about having just stared a blazing room in the eye.

“I never thought the fire would be so big,” one staffer admitted.

Gavin, who has been attending the Congressional training day for the past six years, seemed pleased by the results.

“The next time they see a fire truck coming down the street they’ll have a better appreciation for what they do,” he said.

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