Training to Slay the Dragon | People & Places | Smithsonian

Training to Slay the Dragon

Tucson recruits learn there's a lot more to fighting fire than just "putting the wet stuff on the red stuff"

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We are born with an instinct to flee fire. Firefighters conquer their fear and walk toward the fire, or, when inside a building, crawl toward it through the zero visibility of smoke, and temperatures that can melt a face mask. On top of that, firefighters have become our first line of response to medical emergencies. Whatever happens, they must know what to do.

Writer Jennifer Lee Carrell handled hoses, crawled into "burn rooms," where fire scenes are simulated with frightening accuracy, and rappeled down the outside of buildings as she followed 42 recruits through the training program of the Tucson, Arizona, fire department. She then rode with some of them as they made their runs as real firefighters, encountering the trivial and the horrendous.

The five-month course includes classroom work on the physics of high-pressure hoses and all the types of building construction firefighters may encounter; endless physical training so they can run up flights of stairs in heavy "turnout" suits and air tanks; and practice fighting fires of all types, indoors and out.

The training for medical emergencies is as realistic as it can get without being the real thing. In addition to practicing on classmates made up to look like they have been shot or stabbed, or have slashed their wrists or suffered a compound leg fracture in a car wreck, they spend hours in the classroom on subjects familiar to any medical student. "It's a lot of studying, a lot of studying," one recruit said. "But you have to get it right, or people die."

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