Tracy Caruso Becomes a Firefighter for a Day
There’s a reason firefighters are referred to as being “the bravest.” The work they do is pretty scary. We all know this objectively, but I got to experience what it’s like to do what they do. The Palm Beach County firefighters invited me, with a group of elected officials, to be a firefighter for a day. Spoiler alert: Between “get this bleeping mask off of me” and “You expect me to crawl around on the ground,” I’m probably not the one you want to come and rescue you should you be trapped in a burning building. But, I learned a lot from this experience, and most importantly, I know from doing the work that the brave men and women who risk their lives for all of us deserve every penny they get and then some.
Whoever invited lawmakers to experience what it’s like to be a firefighter is a genius. It accomplishes the task of getting them to experience what it’s like firsthand, and at the same time, everyone gets to network and bond while wearing bad-ass clothing and then stuffing themselves with BBQ ribs, Mac and cheese, and cookies when the whole thing is over.
The first thing we did was put on the firefighter outfit and gear, which was an ordeal in and of itself. We’ve all seen people in this outfit, but it probably never occurred to you that it is cumbersome and hot. It’s boiling, and putting it on isn’t easy. You put your feet through the pants and into the boots to pull them up. The pants have suspenders. This part is easy. Putting on the coat, the neck wrap hood thing, the eye goggles, and the hard hat is a production that took me five solid minutes to do correctly, with help. Firefighters are expected to do the same thing within thirty seconds, often after hearing a sound alarm and waking from a deep sleep.
Walking around in the outfit is also challenging because it’s heavy and thick. It’s not exactly a graceful experience, and I’m pretty sure that while many of the men looked hot and rugged, I looked like a dufus. I even looked ridiculous in that awesome hard hat, which was insanely heavy. After putting the breathing apparatus on my back, another heavy object, I felt silly and awkward, but I soldiered on and took a golf cart up a hill to get to the car we were going to bust open; there was no way I was going to walk in that outfit, even though we were at the firefighter training facility which doesn’t cover a large area.
At the car, we were given a small apparatus to break the car windows. You provide the window a little tap, tap, tap with this thing, and the whole thing shatters, which felt even more satisfying than watching my husband stomp on a glass at our wedding. Next, we used the jaws of life to get the door off the car. Imagine saving a trapped person in a vehicle. Now you know how they get them out.
Next was putting out an actual fire in a building. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do this. If you’re claustrophobic, this next part would be terrifying. They put a mask on you that’s similar to scuba gear. Your face is completely covered, and they push the mask on. You’re now breathing using the machine on your back. It’s hard to breathe in a relaxed way. It’s also hard to hear. I was scared, but my firefighter friends said they would be by my side and I would be completely fine.
I then moved a hose around in a circular motion to put out the fire as they had taught me. One of the firefighters stood behind me because I could have been pushed back by the force of the water in the hose. Controlling the hose wasn’t easy, but I released the fire and felt proud. After this, some trainees entered a dark building, rescued a “baby,” and broke down a door. They also did CPR on “babies” to learn how that worked.
One of the most exciting parts of the day was when they flew the Trauma Hawk, a helicopter, to transfer a patient from one hospital to another specialized unit. Palm Beach County has two of them, which are owned and operated by the Health Care District. I’m an HCD Commissioner, so it was thrilling to see one flying in.
When this was done, I realized I had exerted myself beyond what I was used to and was starving. No worries. We all ate a delicious meal together and talked about how frigging extraordinary the whole experience was and how we couldn’t believe that this was the daily life of firefighters.
Next time you see firefighters, thank them for all of their work. What they do is much more complicated than you think it is. They’re amazing people, and their sacrifice is incredible.
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