Crammed into a suffocating crawl space, three feet by three feet, heart pounding, nervous sweat streaming from every pore and having little concept of up or down, I was ready to call it quits.
I was blind, weighted down by full firefighter's uniform, 30 pounds of breathing apparatus and hampered by trailing wires in this tight passage from hell.
The walls, in my mind, were closing in. I couldn't go back, I was too far in.
Besides, as part of RIT (rapid intervention team), there was a stricken fellow firefighter at the end of the hose who needed my help.
But, having already clambered, sightless, on hands and knees, following a hose for 50 feet, I was running close to empty.
The air tank may have been full, but the wells of energy, resolve and composure - which I had previously thought to be in good standing - were now flashing red.
It wasn't quite pitch black. My vision, however, and every sense in my body, were confined to the two-inch world between face and mask.
I turned, shimmied and squirmed - nothing, no movement.
In fact, the limited space around me felt tighter with every motion as I tried to negotiate the 90-degree angle in the crawl.
It was likely less than five minutes. It felt like 50.
I think, I'm not certain, I told our firefighter wrangler, Dan McLelland, to get me out. I was good to go.
I assume he didn't hear me.
Someone whispered there was only a few feet to go.
And with one last lung-bursting push, I was free. Or so I thought.
Another 20 feet of crawling on hands and knees, making sure I was still following the hose line, and I was back in another confined space.
Taller than the first hellhole, the challenge this time was to extricate myself, with zero energy, from an 18-inch wide slot.
Again, there were white-flag moments before I somehow emerged, relatively unscathed, but physically and mentally exhausted.
I dare say I shed a few pounds in there. But I gained a new appreciation for our firefighters.
Every two years, the British Columbia Professional Firefighters Association hosts, during the UBCM conference in Vancouver, the Fire Ops 101 program.
The plan is to give municipal politicians, city top brass and media a first-hand experience of what a firefighter battles on a daily basis.
I'm pretty sure I can speak for Richmond councillors Linda McPhail and Chak Au, who were part of our team invited by the Richmond Firefighters Association, that the plan works just fine - and then some.
In the briefing room, prior to tackling six emergency scenarios, the 40 assembled city leaders and media were told they would sweat today.
They got that right. We were also told that, in real life, firefighters have less than three minutes to make a call and take action.
It took me three minutes to adjust the size of my helmet.
Outside, all suited and booted, our wrangler (guide), McLelland, a firefighter of 28 years, articulated with passion the vital need to maintain a human presence on the ground, as opposed to relying on the latest gadget or life-saving tool.
"You need real people out here to make split-second decisions and get around whatever
obstacle is thrown in your path, things change very quickly out there," insisted McLelland.
"Manpower is so important to what we do, and I hope that's never lost."
After trying to haul a water-laden hose up a flight of stairs of a "burning" building, with zero visibility in near 500-degree heat, I can't disagree with McLelland.
And after trying to pry the door off a car with the jaws of life, in a bid to save a would-be crash victim and then sampling the aforementioned crawl space from hell, I can attest, even a little, to the extreme physical and mental stamina required to pull the job off at any given minute of every shift.
As volcanic red flames and thick black smoke billowed out of the first-floor window, it was time for us, the first team, to go in.
The mission: put out the fire and check for any signs of life. Easy.
With Coun. Au leading the hose, off we trumped up the stairs, more Keystone Cops than Chicago Fire, as we struggled to pull the hose and move forward at the same time.
I couldn't see more than a foot ahead.
I couldn't hear what anyone, let alone our wrangler, was saying. And, above all, it was
bloody hot in there - nearly 500 degrees Celsius, supposedly.
Confusion reigned. Was the fire out? Do we go back, forward or what? A chink of light pierced through the thick curtain of smoke and we shuffled to convene on a balcony.
A body, we were told by McLelland, was back inside and we had to find it.
Leading the hose this time was me, but as I tried to venture further into the near pitch-black tower, the hose jammed and was not about to budge. Abandon rescue, was the call.
Outside, as we peeled off our masks and regained our slightly stunned senses, McLelland explained that, if that was a real emergency, you only go where your hose can go.
"You get out of there fast and send in another team with another hose," he said.
"We don't take unnecessary risks, your hose is your lifeline in there."
Acar had crashed and a screaming backseat passenger was trapped and bleeding profusely from multiple wounds.
We needed to break the glass and get the door open as quickly and safely as possible before it was too late.
After hollering "breaking glass" and smashing the window in a strategic spot, I waded in with the "jaws of life," and its 10,500 pounds worth of pressure to pry open the door.
With the clock ticking and the "victim's" wails getting louder, I realized that, if I didn't get the jaws into the correct spot and have the muscle density to keep them wedged in there, the door panel merely shreds.
With the help of an actual firefighter, the sweaty and breathless amateur hero - me - finally managed to free the door. Coun. McPhail then stepped in to cut the door clean off with the jaws and finish the job.
The victim, a teenage girl, was free to be treated. Just as well it wasn't for real.
Firefighters are often the butt of jokes, especially when it comes to emergency service personnel bantering amongst themselves.
And they're even occasionally on the receiving end of snide comments from the public about how they spend the quieter hours on shift, waiting for a life-saving scenario to emerge.
Indeed, on many occasions, I've sat in the soccer change room, having a post-game beer with firefighter teammates, and poked fun about their barbecues, card games and movie nights while "working."
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