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NLFD recruits: training the best, for the worst

NLFD recruits learn to save themselves
North Liberty Fire Department recruits go through the Confidence Course at the station Monday, April 14, encountering a “victim” while following a fire hose laid throughout the apparatus bays. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

NORTH LIBERTY– Firefighters work in some of the most hostile environments on Earth, where extreme heat and near zero visibility are normal in a setting most definitely “Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH).” It is in these situations where the ability to remain calm and rely on training and experience are vital, particularly when things go from bad to worse. While firefighters go into burning structures to save others’ lives, sometimes they end up having to save themselves.
The North Liberty Fire Department’s (NLFD) recruit class was able to experience some of the conditions they will face as they took on the department’s Confidence Course as part of their weekly schooling Monday, April 14, at the fire station. In full protective gear, breathing air out of the tanks on their backs, and with face masks blacked-out, each recruit navigated through the apparatus bays by crawling along a fire hose which had been laid out through several obstacles. The firefighters-in-training had to go under, around, over or through each challenge, relying on constant contact with the hose, and what they could feel to guide them.
To add to the darkness, many of the lights were turned off and a fog machine filled the bays with simulated smoke. To add to the confusion, heavy metal music blared during some of the evolutions, while the actual fire department radio traffic from the recent tragedy in Boston (where two firefighters died in a seven-alarm blaze) set the tone for others, underscoring the deadly seriousness of the training, and the risks all firefighters face.
“The purpose of the Confidence Course is to get the firefighters used to being in an environment they’re not used to,” said NLFD’s Health and Safety Officer, Ryan Brumm. He stressed the need for them to remain calm, not just in the training evolution, but also in a real structure fire when they may get hung up on fallen debris or become disoriented while searching rooms for victims.
“We teach them to use their training to their advantage, and we want them to get comfortable in a controlled environment (such as the Confidence Course),” Brumm said. “In an uncontrolled environment (like a house fire) they’ll then have that base of skills to work from.”
While the probationary firefighters went through the course individually, in a real situation, they would enter a structure in teams of at least two. NLFD, like all fire departments, operate under the “two in, two out” model where a crew enters together and leaves the structure together while an equal number waits just outside, ready at an instant to enter the structure if something goes wrong.
Also waiting outside is a Rapid Intervention Team (RIT) whose sole purpose on the fire ground is to stand ready with an arsenal of tools, ready to rescue a downed or trapped firefighter.
When things go wrong, either the distressed firefighter or a member of his crew transmits a “MAYDAY” call. The mnemonic “LUNAR” is then followed: Location (where in the structure they are, first floor, basement, etc.), Unit (what truck they’re assigned to, such as Engine 112, Truck 114, etc.), Name (who the firefighter in trouble is), Assignment (what task they were doing, such as searching for victims, fire attack, ventilation, etc.) and Resources are needed (what kind of help is needed from the RIT team). The rookie firefighters experienced this when suddenly three or four firefighters pounced on them, trapping them with a tarp. They were asked to recite the LUNAR information as they would over the radio to the Incident Commander (IC).
Staying calm and focused is the key.
“They learn that they don’t have to panic,” Brumm said, calling the exercise as a whole, “a great learning experience.”