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Battling a blaze and saving a 'body'

Councillors' eyes opened after crawling through burning building

When they arrived, it was pouring rain and everyone was feeling a little on edge.

After all, no one - not one soul in the team - had ever done this before.

So it was no surprise that everyone's blood pressure was up, way up, when it was checked prior to them "going in."

Then, it was time. It was Ken Johnston's turn.

Whether it was the heavy rain or his fast beating heart he's not sure, but his oxygen mask - fed from a weighty tank on his back - had fogged up.

And never having worn such an intimate device or clothing so heavy, Johnston was bordering on claustrophobia.

But it was too late to turn back now. As he entered the building, the light disappeared and the air around him turned pitch black with thick dark smoke.

There were no flashlights among his four-strong team and it was so dense that Johnston could barely see his hands in front of him.

As he fumbled his way around, trying to haul a laden hose up the first flight of stairs, Johnston and the crew knew the fire was somewhere on the third floor and there may be victims en route.

A wrangler (trained firefighter) was screaming because a freaked out Johnston kept bumping into walls, quite literally not knowing what was right and what was left.

Then, there was another scream, and it was not part of the drill.

"Man down."

Johnston didn't take it seriously at first, believing it to be part of the experience.

But it was real. The eldest member of the team was actually down, behind Johnston. Within seconds, the stricken man was being dragged out the "burning" building, rendering Johnston the last man on the hose.

By the time what was left of the team made it to the second floor, they were ordered to drop to their knees and start pulling the hose up the stairs.

As they crawled through the blackened building, still not knowing for sure where they were or what was in front of them, Johnston's knee pressed right onto what felt like a body.

He was told to leave the "body" and concentrate on the fire, which they had finally reached. Johnston had fire gloves on, but the heat was so intense it felt like he was waving his bare hands directly above a naked stove.

With the "fire" extinguished, the team - including Johnston, who later discovered he was fast running out of oxygen - was told to back up, still on their hands and knees, using the hose as their guide to relative safety.

On his way down, Johnston knelt back on the same "body" again and then it was the time to get the "victim" out.

He and his team had to drag the body all the way back down the stairs, still with limited or no vision.

But they managed it and the whole eye-opening experience - called Fire Ops 101, an interactive event to allow decision-makers such as Coun. Johnston to experience what firefighters go through - from start to finish took about 10 to 15 minutes.

"I was completely out of oxygen," Johnston said.

"What struck me the most was that you couldn't see or hear and the strength required is unbelievable."

Johnston said he couldn't imagine what it must be like in a real life situation.

In such situations, firefighters, Johnston was told, spend up to 40 minutes doing what he did in ten.

"It was an unbelievable experience."

Just in case his city council colleagues think Johnston was exaggerating his version of events, Coun. Linda Barnes, the wife of a retired firefighter, also took part in Fire Ops 101 at the UBCM annual conference in Vancouver last week.

No one on Barnes' team collapsed at the first hurdle, but her experience was no less intense.

"I had some pre-conceived ideas about what might happen, but I guess I really didn't know what I was getting myself into," Barnes said.

"I had this heavy pack on my back and this hose did not bend. I couldn't see a blessed thing. All I could hear was some mumbling and the occasional 'go right.'

"Around the corner I could see the glow of the fire, but that was it. Climbing those stairs, not knowing what was there and trying to get around corners with a hose that doesn't bend. It was all quite nervewracking."

Barnes had a good idea in her head what firefighters have to endure, given that her husband

would no doubt have regaled her with tales of his shift when he was on the front line. when he came back home from bad calls or a tough night.

"But after this, absolutely it gives you a different perspective," she said.

"I wasn't afraid for my life or anything, because I had these people around me. But in real life, those people aren't there. I'm very glad I did it."

Fire Ops 101, hosted by the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Association, lasted between three and four hours.

The 41 non-firefighters at the Vancouver Fire Rescue Training Centre participated in five real-life firefighter training exercises, including an auto extrication exercise where the Jaws of Life was used, a confined space patient rescue and a simulation of an emergency using defibrillator equipment.

Cory Parker, president of the local firefighters union, said the event was designed to educate decision makers.

"A lot of them think they know what we do. But it's one thing to look at a fire and watch us doing our job and another to actually do it," Parker said. "Both of them (Johnston and Barnes) did a great job."

Indeed, Johnston said his experience has given him a much "keener awareness of what these guys do.

"It certainly opened up my eyes. We've had a lot of debate about the amount of people needed on a crew.

"But the actual stresses on the body from things such as toxic fumes and the physical aspects of it is something you can't properly get your head around until you've experienced it.

"This, to me, was like the army. It's very much about manpower, very much 'boots on the ground.'"

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