Firefighters take their first breath

Training up on PPE and SCBA allows firefighters to teach one another

Editor's note: The International Fire Relief Mission is a nonprofit organization that collects donated fire and EMS equipment and delivers it to needy firefighters around the world. Rick Markley volunteers his time to IFRM. He accompanied the group on its 2010 trip to Republic of Georgia and submitted this series of blogs about that effort.

MTSKHETA, Republic of Georgia — When you travel to under-developed countries, you take extra safety precautions, buy extra insurance and hope like heck that no medical emergencies arise. But medical emergencies don't care where you are, and so Mtskheta in the Republic of Georgia was just as good a city as any for one of the International Fire Relief Mission team members to take ill.

When the symptoms appeared, it meant a visit from Georgian paramedics; the fire department does not run ambulance services. One of the paramedics spoke some English. When the symptoms persisted, it meant high-tailing it back to the United States for two of our team.

This was complicated by the limited number of flights out of Tblisi each day and by the added expense of change fees. IFRM uses all of its money to collect and ship gear; when team members conduct in-country training, they do so at their own expense. Communication is another complicating factor, as the change had to be made through ticket agents in Georgia.

An officer helps calm one of the firefighters using SCBA for the first time (Photo: Rick Markley).

An officer helps calm one of the firefighters using SCBA for the first time (Photo: Rick Markley).

Our interpreters assisted in negotiating with the airline. In the end, securing early passage back to the U.S. took the better part of a day and more than $500.

Donning and doffing
Once this process was underway, the three remaining IFRM members got down to training the rank-and-file firefighters. We pulled out several sets of matching bunkers, helmets, boots of various sizes, masks, SCBA brackets and tanks, and the one Nomex hood we could find from the sea container and set it up in the apparatus bay — somewhere in that sea container is a box with enough hoods to supply several departments this size.

We assemble the crew of firefighters in the apparatus bay to, via an interpreter, put them through the same PPE instruction we gave the officers earlier. But where the officers received more theory than practice, the rank-and-file will get almost all hands-on instruction.

This crew is largely older, 35 and over. They wear a mish-mash of station wear: the full uniform consists of military-style boots, blue khaki pants, any warm shirt and a denim jacket with the Georgian fire logo on the back. Many simply wear jeans and athletic shoes.

This is both their station wear and turnout. Most are smoking and talking as we begin to demonstrate donning turnouts. Many of the officers from the previous class are here, too.

First we demonstrate: I don full gear with mask, no SCBA, while IFRM President Ron Gruening explains the process. The men are interested, but are by no means rapt. Now it is their turn.

Undivided attention
We take them two at a time and offer help as needed. Things are going well and the others continue to smoke and talk. Then our first two firefighters don their masks — it is their first time doing so.

I cannot tell you what they said to one another. But I know that look of "oh, crap" when they realize how claustrophobic wearing those masks can be. After getting fully dressed, they rip the masks from their faces.

We now have the full attention of the others.

As the practical progresses, something good happens: the officers and some of the firefighters who were watching closely begin helping and correcting those donning. We are able to step back and let them correct one another, essentially self instruct.

We repeat this process with the SCBA pack. We have a full tank to work with; they will go on air. Most of the firefighters were uncomfortable in the mask; we now have their undivided attention for the SCBA portion. And again, as firefighters took turns donning the SCBA, the others stepped in to help.

The second crew of firefighters we instructed on the following day was considerably younger and more athletic. They didn't breathe as heavy on air and could don and doff quicker. What they did share in common was taking the initiative to help each other during the hands-on.

It is one thing to learn a new skill. In Firefighter I and II classes, I learned about PPE and SCBA. But that understanding goes to a deeper level when you must teach another, perhaps deeper yet when those students speak no English.

By helping with the instruction, I grew as a firefighter. And watching as the Mtskheta firefighters and officers step in to help their fellow firefighters, I knew that they too had grown as firefighters. 

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