Home on the Key

Fire Ops 101, or Why I Will Never Be a Firefighter


I received a message in February from Key Peninsula Firefighter-Paramedic Adam Morse about an opportunity. In my campaign for fire commissioner last year, I didn’t get the endorsement of his union (IAFF Local 3152), and the last time we spoke was at a public meeting. It wasn’t exactly a lovefest.

I was relieved, surprised, and honored when he invited me to join him in a training called Fire Ops 101 in the Tri-Cities. The purpose was to give elected officials and other decision-makers a glimpse of what it’s like to be a firefighter. He assured me that friends of mine, namely our Pierce County Councilmember Robyn Denson and my fellow fire commissioners Stan Moffett and Shawn Jensen, had all completed the training.

The week before the trip, Adam had me come into a station to get outfitted in full firefighter gear, known as a turn-out. He insisted I don the gear like a professional, tucking the pant legs into the boots so I could pull them on simultaneously. They say we all put our pants on one leg at a time, but firefighters are trained to do even better to save time and lives. The gear was well-worn, bulky, and not the least bit fashionable (yet somehow sells for over $5,000, as if it was made by Gucci).

Next, I was fitted for an oxygen mask, a self-contained breathing apparatus, known as an SCBA. A firefighter helped me adjust the mask and hooked me to a machine to measure how well it worked while I bobbed my head and ran in place. I was already panting when he told me the machine malfunctioned, and I would have to repeat the test.

A few days later, Adam and I hopped into a KPFD red Ford F-550 and headed east to the Tri-Cities. Along the way, we talked about fire department issues like the upcoming maintenance and operations levy and its impact.

As we crossed the Columbia River at Vantage, I started feeling hot and itchy under my KPFD jacket. When we arrived at the Hammer Training Center, the skin on my neck already looked sunburned. By dinnertime, I had to excuse myself to go back to the hotel lobby and buy an antihistamine. I had full-blown hives from anxiety.

About the time the Benadryl kicked in, the heartburn started, and I started taking antacids. Then the hives came back. Then the heartburn returned. I chewed the rest of the Tums. I ended up getting no sleep that night before Fire Ops.

I considered telling Adam that I had a rough night and just wanted to go home. Then I thought of the stories he’d tell about me around the firehouse, so I sucked it up. Now I know how a firefighter feels when he or she is unable to sleep during a 24-hour shift. It made the training even more authentic.

We did drills requiring us to enter dark, smoke-filled buildings in full gear. We rescued heavy mannequins by cutting through cars with the Jaws of Life. This equipment is so heavy that it makes sense to have weightlifting facilities at the fire stations. (I had just assumed that, like convicts, it gave firefighters something to do in their free time.) We loaded a mannequin patient into an ambulance and assisted his breathing while the driver zigzagged his way through the facility. We extinguished a car fire and a dumpster fire. I conquered my disdain for the SCBA mask when I wore it with the air tank while climbing a 100-foot ladder from the fire truck to the roof of a five-story tower.

Any good training has its takeaways — things you learned that you can use on the job. I learned there is a lot more science in firefighting than I realized. It’s not just pouring water on a fire. More importantly, I learned firsthand why having more firefighters on-scene saves lives and property. I realized the true costs of cutting back on firefighter staffing.

I also learned a little about myself. In my very first training exercise, I had to crawl my way through a pitch-black, smoky building following the walls of the maze structure with one hand. I wore the SCBA mask and heavy tank on my back and continually bumped my helmet into the walls.

I didn’t know that I was near the exit of this haunted house when I hit a dead end. I started to freak out from a smothering feeling of claustrophobia. Thoughts of dying from a heart attack or stroke raced through my mind. I wanted to rip my mask off and cry like a baby, “Get me out of here!”

But I didn’t. My shadow, Adam, had my back. He encouraged me to feel around and crawl through the small opening ahead. I did, and I made it through to the daylight, frantically tearing at my mask to free my face. I did enjoy a sense of pride from the applause of my team members for making it out alive.

I also learned that it takes a special kind of something to be a firefighter, and I sure don’t have it. I gained a greater appreciation for firefighters, and I will support them in my role as commissioner.

John Pat Kelly is a KPFD fire commissioner. He lives in Wauna.