The first sign of fire was the faint whiff of an earthy incense. Then muted crackling drifted from an interior room and thin, gray smoke wafted through a door frame.
Four Longview firefighters Saturday stood poised at the door of a small red building, hoses raised and waiting for their cue to enter the abandoned building next to Three Rivers Christian School.
At the nozzle, recruit Greg Hawkes turned to his partner behind him. When his thumbs-up was returned, the group crouched low and disappeared into a thick wall of smoke. Less than a minute later, the team backed out of the building, the fire extinguished and their training rotation complete. A new crew quickly stepped in, the fire was re-ignited and the drill began again.
The burn was a window into the training and making of a firefighter. For Hawkes, the live fire training excercise was the culmination of a long and arduous journey. For the 13 other firefighters who also participated, it was a required refresher course meant to hone techniques that keep themselves and their comrades safe.
“Firefighters and their equipment all has to be mission-ready,” Battalion Chief Troy Buzalsky said. “Everything that happens before the emergency is what matters — from equipment to physical readiness. It starts with preparation.”
‘Two burns per room’
Three Rivers Christian School donated the five-room building, located off of Ocean Beach Highway, for Longview fire to use for its annual live fire training sessions. Throughout the year, homeowners or groups sign up to donate buildings for a variety of reasons, including tax write offs or to avoid removal fees, but the department is picky about which buildings it accepts.
“We probably say ‘no’ to 75 percent (of buildings) that are presented to us,” Buzalsky said. “The buildings are either dangerous, or there is no training value, or its more work than it’s worth.”
The 14-person crew had to work quickly on Saturday to get as much training as possible out of the small building before fires consumed too much of the structure.
“We’re going to do this lean and mean today,” Battalion Chief Blake Tomlinson said. “Our goal is to get two burns for each room.”
Soon curtains of black smoke were billowing out of the one-story house, obscuring the peeling red paint and overgrown blackberry vines. The firefighters kept low to the floors, with a hand on the wall to orient themselves in the dark and smokey building.
“You try to be aware of your surroundings when you go in and keep in mind where the windows and doors are,” Hawkes said. “It’s a lot of multitasking.”
Hawkes, 31, is one of the newest Longview firefighters. He applied to the agency last October while working as a firefighter in Marshalltown, Iowa, but he wasn’t hired until this August due to the rigorous hiring process.
Potential firefighters first have to take a physical and written exam through a testing agency. The scores are then sent to the departments they want to work in. After that, there is an interview, a psychological test, a medical exam and a background check.
In addition, Buzalsky said the Longview Fire Department requires recruits to have an associate’s degree and paramedic certification.
Hawkes will be on probation for a full year, during which time he is constantly completing various trainings and testing. He has to clean the fire station toilets and endure endless rookie jokes, but Hawkes said everyone has done their time at the bottom of the totem pole.
“They always say, ‘If they don’t pick on you, that means they don’t like you,’ ” Hawkes said Friday.
Hawkes faced live fires while working in Iowa, but Washington law requires each firefighter to go through a training burn before stepping foot in a burning building.
“(Hawkes) is a fully functional paramedic, but he can’t enter a burning building today,” Buzalsky said last week.
That all changed Saturday.
Under steady rain, smoke curled from every pore of the building and whipped around the outside walls to drift across the nearby field.
“Pencil the ceiling,” Hawkes’ voice cracked across the radio from inside the building, instructing his training team to direct small blasts of water to the ceiling to remove some heat and improve visibility without creating a vapor cloud.
While the training building is unfurnished, most residential fires include hazards like exploding televisions, shattering windows and toxic fumes from melting plastics. The firefighters never know what they might face, so they have to be prepared for any scenario.
“There’s no doubt that a career in the fire service is documented as one of the more stressful jobs in the country,” Buzalsky said Wednesday. “There are high rates of divorce, post-traumatic stress, suicide. … Because of that, we’re trying to be smarter now. And one of the things we look at is overall wellness with a good diet and consistent exercise.”
In recent years, the fire department has made a conscious effort to increase the physical fitness of each individual, he said. Each shift now begins with an hour-long workout at the gym.
Firefighter Mike Mann said he understands the importance of conditioning after an experience with back-to-back fire calls left him physically exhausted.
“I felt like I was going to throw up,” Mann said Friday. “I don’t want to make that one mistake that injures you or someone else.”
Mann was an elementary school physical education teacher in Ridgefield until he was 44, when he decided to pursue a full-time firefighting career. Now 52, he said he plans to stick around for at least another decade, but he needs to keep in shape to do so.
“Firefighting is hard on the body,” Mann said. “You have to go from zero to 100 in a split second. Getting woken up from a dead sleep is like getting water thrown on you, (so) most guys don’t truly sleep while on duty.”
Firefighters work 24-hour shifts and then have 48 hours off. During the shift, they spend every waking moment together. As a result, they are as tight-knit as a family. They have nicknames spanning years and all kinds of abbreviations that the lay person would not recognize.
“We are connected at the hip today for 24 hours,” Mann said Friday.
Every morning after working out at the gym — during which they are on call the entire time — the crew returns to the fire station to go through all of the medical equipment, check valves, turn on the emergency lights and test machinery.
Firefighter Garrett Premel, 31, said this preparation is important for their success.
“When it’s go-time, you want to know that all the equipment is ready,” Premel said Friday. “If it’s my family member, I want the guy who did the rig check.”
During the soggy morning training session, the firefighters slogged through the mud between the smoldering house and the two fire engines used for the training burn.
The fire engine holds 750 gallons of water, which they can pump out within eight minutes. So the firefighters have about that long to quench a fire or find a fire hydrant for additional water.
On Saturday, they repeatedly ignited and extinguished the house so each firefighter could practice eight different positions.
The first three positions make up the “three-deep” approach to fighting a fire. These positions include the attack line, which is the first group into the burning building. Then there is the backup line, which protects the attack line and serves as a lookout. The third position is the rapid intervention team, which constantly assesses the building and responds in the case of a catastrophic event inside.
The exposure line makes sure the fire does not spread beyond the structure. The ventilation team manages how much air is let into the burn. The chief officer manages the event while the safety officer checks for potential safety risks.
Finally, the rehabilitation team conducts medical inspections and hydrates the firefighters under a small canopy tent before they are allowed to re-enter the building. The combination of heavy gear and hot flames makes for sweaty work, and each responder needs to drink a lot to compensate.
Firefighters also direct flames by strategically shattering windows, monitoring changes in smoke color and direction to anticipate a sudden combustion, deciphering complex radio instructions and searching for potential victims — all while facing the flames.
Buzalsky said there is a hidden science to their job.
“Firefighting is so much more than putting wet stuff on red stuff.”