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Hill Staffers Play Firefighter for Hot Day of Training

Fifteen miles away from the vote whipping, the last-minute negotiations and the endless debate over health care reform, staff assistant Blair Scott strapped on a face mask and followed her colleagues into a building that would soon fill with fire and smoke.

She was one of a group of 12 staffers — decked out in $10,000 worth of protective gear — who watched as a tall stack of hay caught fire, erupted in flames and turned the room into a living oven.

“It was really intense,— Scott said after she exited the concrete building amid a cloud of smoke. “I just didn’t move. I thought, ‘If I don’t move, I’ll be fine.’—

About 50 staffers had walked into the “burn building— before the end of Friday’s Congressional Fire Training Day, an annual event aimed at educating Congress about the rigors of firefighting. For about four hours, staffers became students, learning how to cut apart cars with the Jaws of Life, navigate a pitch-dark maze and handle heavy fire hoses to extinguish a wall of flames.

The Congressional Fire Services Institute has held the event for about 15 years, busing staffers once a year from Capitol Hill to the training course at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park. Advocates hope that staffers will learn the difficulties of the day-to-day lives of firefighters and the importance of sufficient funding for up-to-date technology and equipment.

Scheduled for when Congress is supposed to be winding down, this year’s event coincided with the House’s push to pass a health care reform bill — causing more than a dozen staffers to cancel at the last minute. But CFSI Executive Director Bill Webb nevertheless heralded the event as a success.

“Hopefully it left an indelible mark,— he said, “and hopefully it’s information they will take back to their bosses.—

Those staffers who attended seemed glad to escape the Hill for a few hours — even if it meant facing flames and smoke — rotating between six different activities. At the burn building, instructor B.J. Harris lined up staffers like soldiers and directed them to put on their gear — including a self-contained breathing apparatus weighing 30 pounds.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Hopefully everyone had a backpack in school,— Harris told the staffers, pacing while many struggled to lift the pack to their shoulders and adjust its straps. “That’s what this is: a $4,000 backpack.—

The pack, containing compressed air, allows firefighters to breathe easily while they walk through rooms that reach temperatures in the thousands. But staffers got it easy; the pile of hay put off less heat than one burning couch in a burning building.

Nearby, instructors handed participants the Jaws Of Life, a 45-pound piece of equipment that cuts through cars in seconds using hydraulic pressure. Martha Williams — one of a handful of Department of Justice employees who tagged along — laughed with excitement as she cut through the door of a red Volvo. Within a few hours, the Volvo had lost all its windows, its doors and its roof; once a beat-up car, it ended the day resembling an open tuna can.

But three activities filled staffers with the most fear: the burn building, a ride 90 feet up on a fire engine’s hydraulic platform and the maze.

Renee Johnson, a legislative assistant for Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), burst out of the maze — built inside the darkness of a trailer to replicate the inside of a burning building — excited to have faced her fear of enclosed, dark spaces.

“I just went into it with full gusto,— she said. “I feel like I conquered that fear.—

Instructors sprinkled facts throughout the hands-on training. When smoke filled the burn building and obscured staffers’ vision, for example, instructor Amber Reamy pulled out a thermal imaging camera to show a clear picture of the fire’s hot spots. Costing $5,000 to $10,000, the camera can help firefighters find their way through smoke-filled buildings but is too expensive for many departments.

Smaller departments also struggle with getting the latest protective gear; even the basic suits cost thousands of dollars each, leaving some firefighters to cope with their old and fraying versions.

The aim, of course, was to convince staffers that Congress needs to provide more funding for fire services. But firefighters also relished the chance to teach novices, without the stress of handling an emergency. Chas Alessi, a firefighter from Baltimore-Washington International Airport, showed up with his department’s fire engine, ready to help staffers climb onto the vehicle’s hydraulic platform.

“It’s a change for us,— he said with a smile. “We get to interact with people who aren’t yelling at us.—