Feeling the burn

By on September 18, 2014
photos by Mike Shull

photos by Mike Shull

Hanging out with the Lititz Fire Company

LTZ Fire Co 226The living room was thick with heat and smoke as we entered the house through the front door, making our way to the back, toward the kitchen. The urge to turn around intensified with each step.

I’m training with the Lititz Fire Company, and this is about as real as it gets. I’m in a building that’s actually on fire.

“Stick close to me, Merriell,” Chief Ron Oettel told me, his voice muffled by the mask of his SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus).

“Okay, Chief. Will do,” I replied.

As we pushed further toward the source of the heat, leaving his side was not something I gave any serious thought to.

He slowly pushed the kitchen door open with one hand, his flesh protected by thick gloves. We could see the flames glowing brightly in one corner of the room. My senses were heightened by a primal fear. The sound of fire crackling as it engulfed the wooden surfaces around it, the hypnotic flickering of the flame as it performed its dangerous dance, and the intense heat against my firefighter’s suit consumed me. And then the lens of my mask fogged over, rendering me blind as I stood inside this death trap.

“Merriell! Over here!” Chief Oettel called out.

“Where are you? I can’t see!” I shouted back, panic beginning to grip me.

I felt the chief’s hand grab my forearm. He quickly dragged me to where he was kneeling. As I regained my composure, I used the back of my gloved hand to wipe the condensation from my mask. Two more firefighters entered the room, one in the lead controlling the nozzle of a hose, the second following behind feeding more hose into the room. The lead fireman, after radioing his location and status back to command, unleashed the pressure of the hose upon the raging inferno. The heat was intense, burning into the flesh near my knees where my gear was pulled tight against my skin. In order to cool the room, the lead firefighter pushed the windows open and began to spray a fine mist outside causing a backdraft of cool, moist air to rush into the room. Suddenly, being in this oven that was once a family’s kitchen became bearable, relatively speaking.

Chief Oettel motioned for me to follow him out of the kitchen, through the living room and then outside. He cautioned me against taking my gloves off and shedding my gear, as it was all still dangerously hot to the touch. Once I was able to return to my civilian garb, I discovered blistering from the burns on my knees.

“So, what did you think?” Chief Oettel asked.

“I can’t imagine waking up in the middle of the night to go out and do that for real, Chief. I admire and respect you guys for doing what you do,” I answered.

Last Saturday’s training was at Pequea Lane, a live burn facility outside of Lancaster. On this occasion, I was invited to dress out and accompany the Lititz crew into the building as an observer. They performed three full evolutions, meaning they responded to the fire from scratch three different times throughout the morning. Between each evolution, the team was critiqued.

“This gives us the chance to train with a real fire in a controlled setting,” Assistant Chief Mike Smith said. “It also gives new members a chance to showcase their training and prove to us that they are ready to graduate to being suppression firefighters.”

In the Lititz Fire Company, a suppression firefighter is the most advanced level, and it takes approximately 200 hours of training to get there. Having that designation means the fireman can enter burning buildings to put out fires, or perform search and rescue duties.

The real question is, “Why would these men volunteer to put themselves into such dangerous situations?”

“I’ve always liked fire trucks since I was a little boy,” answered Sam Habbershon, a young firefighter preparing to graduate to suppression level. “That and my grandparents had a house fire once, and that made me think becoming a firefighter would be a good way to help people out.”

A third reason, for some, is family tradition.

LTZ Fire Co 100“My dad was a lifelong volunteer fireman, and so was my little brother. I followed their lead since it seemed like the right thing to do,” said suppression firefighter Andy Walls.

Whatever the reason, these firefighters volunteer a great deal of time and effort to be prepared to drop everything (family, work, sleep) and bravely walk into situations from which most people instinctively run. They all have regular day jobs &tstr; insurance salesmen, lawyers, students, and everything in between &tstr; but when the emergency call comes in, they answer it swiftly.

But while the demand for advanced training among these volunteers continues to grow, their numbers continue to dwindle and the amount of financial support from the community continues to decrease. The Lititz Fire Co. currently has 35 members, but Chief Oettel would like to see at least 80 to ensure the best turnout for every emergency. According to Oettel, Pennsylvania had more than 300,000 volunteer firefighers 30 years ago. Today there are approximately 75,000.

The Lititz Fire Co. will conduct a fund drive through the mail in about two weeks, so residents and business owners are encouraged to return the envelopes with a donation. Every little bit counts.

For more information on funding the fire company, or on how to volunteer, visit lititzfire.org.

Merriell Moyer is a freelance feature reporter for the Record Express. He welcomes your comments at merriell071@gmail.com.

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