WEST BRATTLEBORO—The West Brattleboro Green looks smaller from the roof of a Vermont Fire Academy trailer.
Brattleboro Fire Department firefighter Dan Hiner adjusts his gear and air pack. The air pack looks like a landlubber’s version of a scuba tank.
He has a flashlight in his pocket, just in case.
Hiner lifts a hatch in the roof revealing a three-rung metal ladder and a wooden floor.
“After you,” he says.
I climb down into the semi-darkness scooting into the tunnel on hands and knees. Hiner follows, pulling the hatch shut.
With a clang, the bright morning is obliterated.
I crawl, feeling along the metal mesh walls. Hiner shuffles behind me.
This training exercise simulates what its like for firefighters to crawl through narrow passageways, in full gear, blind.
Test of communication
The exercise’s three levels are connected by manholes covered with metal flaps. The walls are constructed with a heavy metal mesh. The tunnels also contain obstacles firefighters must negotiate like a too-small-to-crawl-through 18-inch cylinder.
Brattleboro Assistant Fire Chief Peter Lynch said the department can’t just drop people into a burning building. This training is a stepping stone for firefighters who will then practice in controlled fires.
“This is mainly a confidence builder,” says Lynch.
Hiner says the training exercise helps build muscle memory. He knows that stretching his arm above his head will help move him through a tight spot if his air pack is stuck, or that he can wiggle through small areas on his stomach if necessary.
Firefighting is as much about trusting yourself and your partner as it is technical skills, say Lynch and Hiner.
Four infrared cameras stream video to a firefighter monitoring the trainees.
Brattleboro Fire Lt. David Emery Jr. watches the monitors, offering coaching over an intercom. The controller also operates a strobe light. The light creates glare on the firefighters’ face shield.
“It throws a little wrench into it [the training],” he says.
Emery times the firefighters’ travel through the tunnels. The firefighters before Hiner and I “smoked it,” in seven minutes.
The firefighters crawl from the roof level, to ground level, up two levels and then back to ground level.
I bump my loaner hard hat against the tunnel’s ceiling. It flops over my eyes. Despite the pitch-dark conditions, the hat is distracting and throws off my sense of space.
“Tunnel turns left,” I say to Hiner bumping against the mesh wall.
I reach back around the tunnel’s corner and feel for his gloved hand.
“Here’s a hole. I’m dropping down,” I tell Hiner. “I’m clear, the tunnel turns right.”
A voice over the intercom asks if I want to see what it’s like with the strobe on.
Yup, the strobe is disorienting.
The 18-inch cylinder, however, is disconcerting. I can’t get my knees under me and have to pull with my fingers and push with my toes.
Some firefighters have to take off their air packs and push them ahead through the cylinder, says Hiner.
After the cylinder, the tunnel makes a sharp 90-degree turn with a quick drop through another manhole. I drop down another level while hearing Hiner’s air pack bump against the cylinder.
I turn to my left and hit a wall. I’ve pretzeled myself against the mesh having expected to turn in a specific direction. Hiner is about to drop through the opening above me.
I tell him to wait. Through an ungraceful combination of kicking and pushing I turn myself around.
I scuttle through the exit door and blink as the overhead lights pop on.
“Six minutes!” calls an enthusiastic voice from the control booth.
The payoff for training
In the real world, firefighters can find themselves in “very tight spots” with their thick gear and air packs, says Hiner.
“It’s all about feel and calming yourself down,” Hiner says of the training exercise. “The majority of the guys don’t like this, but it’s a good challenge for us.”
Brattleboro Fire Department slots two hours of training per shift, says Hiner. All of the six firefighters on each shift will have to work through the tunnels.
The trailer belongs to the Vermont Fire Academy. The last time it sat in Brattleboro was about five years ago, says Emery.
Emery says the exercise also tests communication. The lead firefighter will call out directions to his partner.
“The first guy almost acts as a scout,” says Emery.
He says it’s best to negotiate down through the trailer’s manholes feet first. This allows firefighters to test for sturdy ground. If a floor or staircase gives way, then the firefighters still have their arms to grab hold, Emery adds.
The department also runs “entanglement drills” in tight spaces, explains Lynch. In these drills, the firefighters become snarled in some material, like wires, and have to work out of the mess in full gear.
Hiner says during the 2009 Putney General Store fire, he ran out of air in his pack while fighting the fire in the neighboring Offerings building.
To find the fire’s source, the firefighters had to climb through the walls to the attic. They broke into the attic through a knee wall, a short wall in the eves, and found the fire. By then, however, Hiner says his air pack had emptied and he couldn’t make it back through the smoke to the main floor. He had to climb out an attic window to a ladder truck.