I reached my hand into the gray dark and felt nothing. That was a bad thing. There was supposed to be a boot down there on the ground in front of me belonging to a guy who was going to help me rescue a dying man.
I groped forward again, trying to stay balanced on my knees despite being 60 pounds heavier than usual, struggling to keep my left shoulder pressed to the wall that was my only guide in the smoky room. "Stay on the wall! Keep your left shoulder on the wall!" was what the lieutenant had yelled when he opened the door and led us into the burning building.
That had been 10 seconds earlier. Ten seconds, I thought, and I'm already lost. I heard shouting and banging behind me—the third firefighter in my unit had stayed at the door to signal our way out by yelling and slapping the wall, a kind of audio lifeline. Somewhere ahead of me the lieutenant was shouting, "Come this way! This way!" only I wasn’t sure whether I was crawling toward or away from him. But the chirping of a PASS alarm, which indicates a motionless firefighter, drew me a few inches forward. Then I saw the lieutenant's flashlight glowing dimly through the haze. "We've found the downed fireman!" he shouted.
Another firefighter stood over my partner and me with a light as we propped the limp body into a sitting position, loosened the lifeless firefighter's air tank and weaved his hip harness through the air tank's straps, then tightened everything back up again to create handles for dragging him out—"packaging him" is the technical term. "We've got to get this guy out of here!" the firefighter with the light warned as I fumbled with a knot. Finally, we were ready. My partner lifted the man by his should straps and I grabbed him by his belt and we stumbled out to the hallway and toward the banging and shouting near the door, this time with our right shoulders to the wall. I kept stepping on something that I later realized were the downed firefighter's hands. The sounds of heavy breathing filled my ears. It was my own.
Finally, sunlight peeked through the smoke and we were out on the sidewalk. I stepped on the injured man's hands on last time, but it was OK—he was plastic. My partner, Mark McMillan, a lawyer for the Queens Borough President, stripped off his helmet and facepiece, which had protected him from the fake smoke. The man who had guided us out with his banging, CBS Radio News reporter Peter Haskell, pulled off his FDNY-issued insulated gloves and fire retardant coat. I wrung the sweat out of my pony-tail.
The lieutenant, Joseph Huber, looked cool and collected. He was the only real firefighter in the lot.
We were standing on a street at the New York City Fire Academy on Randall's Island, where we'd gathered for Fire Ops 101, a half-day program for journalists, elected officials and other public servants invited by the city's fire unions to get a taste of what the job of a firefighter is like. As we sipped from bottles of Gatorade and discussed the rescue operation we'd just performed—behind us, plastic bodies were draped over the twisted metal sides of a bombed-out bus used for terrorism drills—Comptroller John Liu and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley were rescuing someone trapped under a subway car. Elsewhere on the island, Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Jumaane Williams, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried and NY1 host Errol Louis were backing hose lines out of burning rooms or battling high-rise blazes.
Fire Ops 101 is a program run nationwide by the International Association of Fire Fighters, the mother union to which New York's own Uniform Firefighters and Uniform Fire Officers associations belong. From the introductory movie montage of firefighting scenes set to Mariah Carey's "Hero" to the goodie bag at the end, the program is unbeatably good PR for firefighters.
But between the speeches and the swag, something very valuable takes place during the day of playing firefighter. Even though you're never in any danger, when you are sweating into quilt-thick bunker gear, trying to control a highly pressurized hose or crawling under a subway car looking for a body, you get a very, very small sense of what it must be like to regularly endanger your life during your 9-to-5.
For me, this was particularly instructive. On a tip from a retired FDNY chief, I began researching firefighter fatalities five years ago, requesting via the Freedom of Information Act the investigative reports that the fire department generates every time an FDNY member dies on the job. As FDNY complied with my request, which sadly had to be amended to include subsequent deaths, I became familiar with the harrowing accounts of the last moments of 25 lives. I read how several dead firefighters had been found with their breathing masks off. I learned about problems at several fires with getting water onto the flames fast enough, or with air supplies that ran out too quickly. The documents depicted PASS alarms that weren't heard, gear whose weight contributed to a deadly fall, men who got lost in smoke, confusion on the radio—and about men in their physical prime dropping dead at fire scenes.
But much of this knowledge was abstract. A few hours on Randall's Island made it ever so slightly more real.
The Fire Ops event came a few days after City Limits largely put this month's issue of the magazine to bed, so it didn't shape the story you'll read there. But fittingly, Lt. Huber explained at a few points during the day that many of tactics we were exercising had been created or refined in the aftermath of an FDNY death.
He showed us the personal escape system that he'd helped develop after the 2005 deaths of Lt. Curtis Meyran and Firefighter John Bellew, who along with four other firefighters had to leap from a fifth-story window. The system consists of a rugged metal hook, a line with a 6,000-pound test weight and a control device like mountain climbers use to repel. It allows firefighters to exit through a window in seconds.
The downed firefighter procedure that we practiced, Huber said, had been developed after the 1999 death of Captain Vincent Fowler, who had been stripped almost bare by the time his colleagues dragged and carried him out of the Queens basement where he'd been overcome by smoke.
If there's one thing that Fire Ops illustrated that no article can properly reflect, it's the remarkable competence of New York City's firefighters. Huber, a soft-spoken and incredibly fit 50-year-old who was a phys-ed teacher before joining the department, radiated experience and skill. He spoke without voyeurism about having to jack up a subway car with a hydraulic pump to retrieve a dead body, and of the challenges of extracting victims from a crashed car when onlookers are screaming and sobbing in your ears.
Also evident: The mental aspects of the work. If firefighting is a muscle job, it's the thinking person's muscle job. Even in the simple drill of advancing a hose-line into a mattress fire, officers had to consider how many lengths of what kind of hose to use, and company members had to keep track of one another, monitor their own air supply and perform the specific tasks that came with their role on the hose team. Even the simple act of spraying water on the fire wasn’t all that simple; you have to make clockwise circles toward the ceiling when you spray. Spray too low and overhead gasses can overheat and ignite, killing you. Spray counterclockwise and the heat and smoke will be drawn toward you. And that's one of the simple tasks. Using a system of air pumps and balloons to pry a person out from between a subway car and the platform? That's a little trickier.
What makes all that thinking harder is how incredibly disorienting the fire environment can be. Your movements are made slower and clumsier by all the gear. There's a tremendous amount of noise, and it's hard to talk or hear through the facepiece. And it's really freaky to walk from broad daylight into a situation where you can't see a thing, and no light can help you. Add to that the element that was missing from our little weekend exercise—fear—and the panic and confusion that come through in radio transcripts from fatal incidents make a lot more sense.
Of course, there's more to the firefighting job than that, and probably a lot to like about it. I've spoken to dozens of firefighters over the years and have yet to meet one who doesn't love his job. The camaraderie and pride among FDNY members are tangible.
That esprit de corps comes from the shared knowledge of what it means to do what they do. Obviously, spending a few hours on Randall's Island doesn't really give one a view into that world. And that world is changing: The number of fires is dropping and much of the work of the FDNY involves non-fire rescues, inspections and medical calls.
But much of this work is done while wearing bunker gear, and that's one thing Fire Ops 101 did firmly establish: How uncomfortable it is to wear stuff for any length of time, while exerting oneself to any degree. It's really, really hot. No, really.