Feeling like the Michelin Man, suited up in 50 pounds of gear, the sound of my breath echoes like Darth Vader through the oxygen mask.
Following the shadow of each other through the dark, smoke-filled hallway, we crawl on our hands and knees over debris to a corner away from the flames.
The air is thick and hot above us, but down near the floorboards it’s bearable and provides some visibility through the thick smoke. A lesson learned as a child flashes into my mind as we aim to stay below the weight of the thermal blanket.
I grasp at the hose, trying to heave its weight, but feel as though the hose is pulling me.
As we move towards the source of ignition, I try to wipe the sweat dripping down my face, only to be blocked by my mask.
Visions of the floor collapsing sink into my mind as we inch around the fire.
Downstairs it is dark. I am led blindly by the light of a flashlight ahead while searching the corners for any sign of life or fire. There is none.
Suddenly, we are told that the stairs have collapsed, we are trapped.
Panic starts to set in as my Darth Vader breath becomes more rapid.
There are only a few small basement windows, all too high to even climb out. We radio the outside crews who drop a ladder through the window.
The thought of a fire inching behind us makes my heart race as I scramble to loosen the straps of my oxygen tank.
“Time is of the essence,” Dave Sibilleau shouts to us.
I watch the others climb the angled ladder with ease.
But when my turn arises, I struggle to heave the pack up while trying to balance on the rails. I’m unsteady, my arms are shaking and somehow I must fit through this tiny window.
Feelings of claustrophobia sink in as the window frame confines around me. I wriggle my way through, desperately clawing at the ground to pull myself through until relief sweeps over me.
I briefly look back, flashing a grin of accomplishment over my face, as I join the troops back at accountability.
Both of these are recent scenarios I was able to partake in under the guidance of the BX-Swan Lake Fire Department.
The department, along with all regional firefighters, normally conduct practices at the Fire Training Centre. But this time the BX crews were able to use an old house for fire training.
Thanks to the donation of the home by a local resident, the experience proved invaluable to the department.
The last time the department was granted a home to burn and train in was about six years ago, according to chief Bill Wacey.
“We’ve got an immeasurable amount of training out of all of this,” said Wacey.
Unfortunately, the number of firefighters taking part in this and other training exercises, as well as emergency incidents, is declining.
“We’re allowed up to 31 (volunteer firefighters). I’m at 25,” said Wacey, who attributes the decline to the economics of the last couple years. “Previous to that there was typically a lineup of people waiting to get in.”
The problem isn’t just in the BX.
“All departments overall are down on memberships,” said Wacey. “It’s a nationwide, provincewide issue. Across the country, volunteer fire departments are struggling with manning issues.”
Along with an influx of young people heading north to work, time is one thing people appear to be lacking, as joining the department requires considerable time commitments.
“You’re looking at probably anywhere from 400 to 600 hours, not counting call outs, in a year, for the first couple years,” said Wacey of the necessary training.
But ask Wacey or any other firefighter and they will tell you the time invested is worth it to be part of the life-saving team.
“Every single person will probably give you a different answer, from the community service – they want to give back to the community – to the excitement,” said Wacey, 55, who joined the hall in 1985 (with a full head of hair) and has been chief for 15 years now. “It’s a second job, but it’s the excitement of it, new experiences that you’ve trained for.
“I love the job. At the end of the day, the people you deal with. The camaraderie, the closeness, that second family that a fire department can be.”
On average, the department responds to 10 to 12 calls a month, although recent weeks have been an exception with 16 calls in just 18 days.
Incidents range from structure fires to motor vehicle accidents.
Anyone interested in becoming a firefighter can contact their local fire department.
“In my mind it’s one of the greatest jobs in emergency services,” said Wacey of the paid, on-call duty.
For a video of training through the eyes of a firefighter, visit vernonmorningstar.com