There is no shortage of catastrophes a firefighter can encounter while on a call.
A floor can collapse. An oxygen tank could run low. Falling debris could pin them, or they could be disoriented by billowing smoke.
When these challenges arise, it is how emergency workers prepare themselves that can be the difference between life or death, said Battalion Chief Ron Penix, of the Lodi Fire Department. To help sharpen their skills, firefighters took turns Tuesday morning running “mayday” drills — situations in which they would be trapped and in need of special assistance.
“Sometimes guys will delay making a distress call until it’s too late,” Penix said. “We train to remind them not only how to make the call, but why they should ask for help sooner rather than later.”
Turning Fire Station 1 into an obstacle course, members of the Lodi Fire Department practiced how to ask for help over their radios when they fall, become trapped under debris, get stuck in a room, get lost in a structure or run low on clean air.
The blindfolded firefighters followed ropes stretching from the department’s basement to the first floor before crawling downstairs again. The ropes, donated from fire stations in Elk Grove, Galt and Stockton, used a series of rings and knots in them to help firefighters determine how far into the building they were.
“These are large-area search ropes,” Penix said. “We’d use these to clear out large warehouses or structures with a lot of space and rooms inside. The knots and rings designate distances in 20- and 100-foot increments. When guys are in a smoke-filled building, this helps them relay to others where they are.”
The drill also simulated being trapped. Two firefighters would pin another under a chain-link fence to mimic a situation in which the immobilized rescue worker would have to ask for help.
Using a process known as the LUNAR System, workers would announce their location, unit, name, air pressure in their tank and resources needed to improve the situation as part of the distress call.
The next stage of the simulation featured ladders tilted on top of each other only a few feet off the ground, forcing firefighters to crawl underneath the obstacles in all their protective gear.
The firefighter would again be trapped during the ladder-clearing exercise and would have to use the LUNAR System to ask for assistance.
But a final, more sinister trap was waiting.
Floors often cave in during a fire, Penix said, and crews need to be prepared.
To prove the point, a collapsing rig was created to send firefighters tumbling as they attempted to feel their way down a flight a stairs.
Using a flat slab of wood at the top of the stairway propped up by a 2-by-4 several steps below, a training supervisor would pull the prop away and send the firefighter tumbling.
To prevent serious injuries, a mattress and some towels were propped against the wall the firefighters crashed into.
Once again, the downed firefighter sent a mayday call.
Firefighters Kris Graves, Mark Azevedo and Oscar Picazo were the first batch of firefighters to go through training Tuesday morning, and more participated in the afternoon.
Firefighters routinely train throughout the year and between calls to be prepared for whatever disasters they may encounter on the job, Penix said, and training on how to ask for help is as important as any other exercise.
“Just like a fighter pilot doesn’t want to radio a mayday in a multimillion-dollar aircraft, firefighters can be reluctant to ask for help,” he said. “But today’s drills focus on firefighters calling for maydays because they can make a situation worse for others coming to rescue them if they’re too proud to ask for help earlier.”
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