Mona Shield Payne
Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
The young recruit is on his hands and knees, inching along inside a dark, smoke-filled room, his vision reduced to inches.
Crawling is safer than walking slowly, he was taught: If he stumbles upon something, he won’t fall.
He is burdened by 80 pounds of equipment and protective clothing and is sucking air through a facemask; his breathing is labored, his heart pounding with anxiety.
Suddenly, he’s shoved flat against the ground, and he realizes he’s been buried in an avalanche of debris. He can barely move. He wriggles an arm free and grabs the radio on his chest.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” he shouts through his mask.
He is one of 28 firefighter recruits selected from thousands of applicants wanting to become a firefighter. Most days the training is all about how to fight fires and save lives. This day, the lesson is about how to save his own hide.
The recruits shout, “Sir, yes sir,” to acknowledge Battalion Chief Leo Durkin as he walks into an 8 a.m. class at the Clark County Fire Department Recruit Academy. They speak as one and look strikingly alike in their blue uniforms and with shaved heads. There are women in the class, and their heads are shaved, too.
Their backs are straight, arms square on the table, as Durkin, chief of Battalion 6 in the southwest valley, reaches the front.
This day, the recruits will learn to call a mayday, a last resort used only if the firefighter is in danger.
Academy recruits are trained to enter a burning building and, if need be, haul a victim from danger. Like a fighter pilot ejecting from a doomed aircraft, a firefighter must recognize danger before it’s too late. The radio is a firefighter’s lifeline, his ejection seat.
“Historically, firefighters call mayday very late in their emergency and they leave themselves no time for rescue,” Durkin said later. “They continue to try and solve the problem themselves.”
The consequences of waiting too long can be horrific. Nationwide, about 100 firefighters are killed annually. Clark County has been mostly spared such tragedy. Of the two county firefighter fatalities through the years, one was the result of a heart attack. The other was Colin Haley, who was killed in 1968 when he was fighting a blaze in a dice factory. He died from inhaling toxic fumes from the burning plastic cubes after his oxygen ran out.
Clark County firefighter guidelines have been toughened over time: Firefighters inside a burning building are instructed to go outside before their reserve air kicks in. The lesson for recruits: Be disciplined in monitoring what’s left in their air tanks.
Paradoxically, it’s that very danger, along with the chance to serve the community, that feeds the excitement among these recruits.
Before the mayday drills, the fitness tests, the shaved heads, and scenarios of life and death, Jennifer Folkert wore business suits and makeup to work, where she put to use her degrees in business and aeronautics and her master’s in crisis management.
“What job can you run into a burning building, deliver a baby and rescue a cat from a tree all in one day?” the 30-year-old Folkert said. “This is the most physically and mentally challenging endeavor I have ever been a part of.”
Each day is an unknown, an exciting prospect for Folkert, who came from sitting at a desk where she wrote federal grant applications as the Clark County airport program administrator.
“In this, I am one of the guys,” Folkert said. “I’m expected to do everything the guys do.”
The recruits, some in their early 20s, others in their later 30s, line up in rows to pile on their gear for their mayday drills.
Like a deep-sea diver or astronaut, firefighters prepare for an environment hostile to human life. The outfit is not stylish, or streamlined, or comfortable, but it will protect them for extended periods of time in temperatures between 200 and 400 degrees. Much beyond 500 degrees is fatal, Durkin said.
These drills help give recruits like Eric Paine, 36, the confidence to perform in the field under duress. He knows about his lifeline.
“Just get your hand to that radio,” Paine said. “Call that mayday, and I know somebody will be there for me.”
In the simulation, the recruits practice a variety of scenarios: becoming entangled in a rope, getting lost in a room with no visibility and being buried in a collapse.
To simulate the collapse, firefighters jump the recruit with a piece of chain-link fence.
A piece of fencing — that’s what struck the firefighter while crawling through the smoke-choked building, leaving him pinned while trying to get to his radio. He succeeds, finally, and provides the crucial information needed for his rescue: his location, unit, name, available air and exactly what equipment he needs to be rescued.
His radio squawks back — help is on the way. He activates a device on his chest that emits a piercing noise, so he’ll be easier to find. He waits.
Then, as suddenly as it hit, the wreckage is gone when the firefighters release him from the ground.
They’ve all persevered through the challenges. And on Friday, the 28 recruits will graduate from the program.