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‘I’ll Do It’ News-Sentinel reporter joins local firefighters in rescue training session

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Posted: Friday, September 14, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 11:15 am, Fri Sep 14, 2012.

"So. Which one of you is suiting up and following these guys into the basement?" asked Brad Doell, a firefighter with the Lodi Fire Department, as he stood in front of a grill cooking up hot dogs.

Reporter Maggie Creamer and I looked at one another. She was wrestling with a video camera, tripod and notebook, and decked out in a dress and sandals fit for the mini-press conference we were waiting for.

I was more prepared, dressed as I was in jeans and a short-sleeved top.

"I'll do it!" I volunteered. Too bad no one mentioned exactly what I would be doing until just moments before I was faced with a dark stairway and told to follow the leader.

Fire Capt. Rob Bussman and firefighters Dave Bolognini and John Rowlands were the members of the Rapid Intervention Crew I was joining. It's a special team to rescue firefighters trapped or injured on the job.

Bolognini found a fireman's jacket, pants, boots and helmet to pull on over my street clothes.

I felt an instant gain of several pounds in that moment.

"I've never felt this heavy in my life," I said to Bologini.

"You don't even have an air pack on," he pointed out. This would have made my gear about 35 pounds heavier.

"I would be a bad firefighter," I said.

Back in the fire truck bay, we waited for our instructions.

Councilman Bob Johnson and San Joaquin County Supervisor Ken Vogel were at Lodi Fire Station 1 to observe the day's training.

"Make sure you bring her out, or the story would change drastically," said Johnson.

The call came in over a walkie-talkie.

"All units radio traffic. We have a mayday. Mayday. Mayday," said a voice on the radio.

A firefighter was "trapped" in the basement. He reported feeling faint, dizzy, and had 2,000 pounds of air pressure in his air tank. Was he injured? Was he entangled in anything? These questions fired back over the radio while the team prepared.

Bussman, Bolognini and Rowlands carried as much gear as they could, from a thermal imaging camera to wire cutters and an ax. Anything to get through the barriers that may lie between them and their fallen comrade.

I had no gear, just my fire suit. I followed the three men into a dim hallway and down a set of stairs that grew darker with every step.

The team-in-training focused on finding their way, staying in communication with the outside and following an invisible trail to the injured man.

I focused on not tripping over a fire hose on the stairs and causing the men to tumble down in the dark.

We made it to the ground floor. Bussman told me to stay low and follow the fire hose with my hands. We inched down the hallway, past the end of the hose. I left it on the ground, feeling as though I had run out of breadcrumbs in the forest.

Rowlands, in the lead, found a room and used the camera to locate the "victim."

He and Bolognini entered the room and searched while Bussman stayed in the doorway. I crouched in the dark, trying to keep my vision focused on the glowing tag on Bussman's air tank.

He took that position in case his team became disoriented. They needed a safe way out, and Bussman was the lighthouse.

In a real fireman rescue, the first job is to check the downed man's air pressure and that of the rescuers. If both are good, the rescue continues. If not, a rope is tied to the victim to find him more easily the next time and the team retreats to send in a new one with more air.

"If you run out of air, you aren't doing anyone any good," said Bussman.

The "victim" was found and aided. The simulation was soon over. An "all clear" was sent out over the radio.

Bussman pulled his helmet and mask off to get some air.

"We try to simulate it as much as we can, but it's not the same as a real rescue," he said. In reality, firefighters would be battling extreme heat, smoke, lack of air and virtual blindness.

My hair was stuck to my sweaty head when I got out of the suit a few moments later. It felt like shedding a second skin.

This was clearly not a job for the faint of heart.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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