Company training sessions rarely give me an adrenaline rush. Then again, they typically don't call for the use of respirators, exposure to smoke and fire and checking my vital signs. But this was no ordinary company training.
Working for the Houston High-Rise Triad and a commercial property management company, I recognize the danger of fire and the significance of fire safety.
Each year, a projected 15,500 high-rise structures cause around 60 civilian deaths, 930 injuries and $252 million in damages, according to a U.S. Fire Administration report on high-rise fires based on numbers from the National Fire Protection Association and National Fire Incident Reporting System. In 2004, 107 firefighters died in the line of duty in the United States, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
For a reality check and to realize first-hand the dangers firefighters and occupants of burning buildings experience, I spent a half day going through training with the Houston Fire Academy in the burn building--a building devoted to firefighter training and actually set on fire.
When the smoke cleared, I not only understood the fear and danger fires present, I could truly recognize the importance of keeping our properties safe from fire. I hope my account of the experience will bring to light the seriousness and very real possibility of fire, so property owners and managers will take appropriate measures to protect properties and more importantly, lives.
A circle of extremely young, fit and excited firefighters greeted me on the morning of my training. With firefighter guides, two emergency medical technicians and a crew from fire station 55 acting as the rapid intervention team for the exercise, I was in good hands.
Before long we were put to work: A firefighter helped me put on bunker gear--heavy fire resistant boots, pants, gloves, a hood, an airtight mask, a heavy bunker coat and a fire helmet. As I adjusted to the weight of all this clothing, an air bottle with a respirator was strapped on my back. I learned how to insert the respirator into my mask and breathe. I couldn't help but notice the firefighter helping me was extremely fussy about how the gear fit and even the order in which I put it on.
Following the arduous work of just putting on the gear, a lecture ensued on the nature and behavior of structural fires and the assigned priorities of responding fire department personnel, as well as an explanation of the purpose and importance of each piece of gear.
At one point, I noticed it was easy to pick out the real firefighters. Their helmets and coats showed the effects of exposure to other fires. Just like the uniform of a field goal kicker on a football team, the bunker gear worn by guests like me was conspicuously clean.
Next on the agenda was to put that gear to test. We followed a fire chief down into the basement of the burn building--a concrete and brick structure best described as a giant barbecue pit.
Only high-powered flashlights carried by our firefighter guides illuminated our descent into the building. The temperature in the building was close to 100 degrees. A guide explained a fire simulation took place in the building two days ago, and the residual heat had yet to dissipate.
Walking down the stairs was a challenge. It was dark, and my vision was further impaired by the optics of the facemask. The biggest challenge was the 50 pounds added by my gear's weight. I was extremely focused on walking at that point, but I had the presence of mind to consider how difficult it would have been if I had to carry a firefighter's heavy toolbox.
Inside the burn building, small teams were formed, and we were instructed to stay in constant communication with our designated firefighter guide. A stack of six wooden shipping skids--representing the fuel load of a typical wooden office desk--was stacked in a corner of the room eight or nine feet away. …