Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom: My heart raced as if it was ready to burst out of the two shirts and firefighter turnout gear I had on and land right in my hands.
My hands tingled and shook as my right hand grabbed the next rung of the ladder and my left foot slowly moved up in sync. I was climbing. All I could think was, breathe in as you grab, breathe out as you step; just keep going.
I don’t do heights — never have. Don’t ask me to get on a ladder at home and clean the gutters, help fix the roof in any way or get anything out of a tree. In fact, I don’t even like standing on chairs to reach the highest kitchen cupboards at my house.
But on Wednesday, I was 85 feet off the ground, at the top of an Albany ladder truck during Fire Ops 101 in Colonie Fire Training Facility in Latham.
The program, hosted the New York State Professional Firefighters Association with help from the Albany Fire Department, is about a tenth of what firefighters can go through on a daily basis.
“Don’t look down,” I whispered to myself, but that’s all I could do as I crept toward the top.
“You can do this,” Chris Buttino said.
A look inside the profession
The Cortland Professional Firefighters Association tries to invite a journalist or public official each year to Fire Ops 101 to give them a glimpse into what a firefighter’s day could look like.
“We don’t know what we’re going to encounter when we come into the firehouse,” said Sam Fresina, the president of the New York State Professional Firefighters Association. “You might be battling a two-, three-alarm fire. You might be cutting someone out of a car. You might be performing CPR — anything can happen.”
Shenandoah Briere uses a cutter to cut through the side of a car while an Albany firefighter assists her by holding the back half of the 45-pound tool.
Fresina said the goal behind Fire Ops 101 is to also explain to journalists and officials why fire departments ask for certain things like increased medical coverage.
One of the leading causes of death among firefighters is cancer due to the pollutants firefighters are exposed to.
Blind. No light. Faint sounds seep through all the headgear I had on. My breathing was the only other thing I could hear. The woman behind me, Jamie DeLine of Channel 10 in Albany — who I nicknamed “Homer” because she’s from there — had grabbed onto my right boot. My nickname was “Cortland.”
“You ready, Homer?” I said, turning the door handle, already on my knees. I crawled, my knees hitting a hardwood floor.
I hit a wall.
My left arm swept the other side of the room. Nothing.
Let’s keep moving.
We crawled our way through the house, my right hand sweeping the wall, my left reaching out to see if I could feel anything else and Homer still grasping my boot.
The instructors had put thick black paper inside our masks to simulate what a house with thick smoke would look like — darkness. The goal was to find the occupants, including a 160-pound dummy.
“Remember to keep feeling around,” an instructor called out. “What do you feel?”
“A stove,” I replied touching the metal grate that covers the burner.
I kept crawling, my knees feeling each hit against tile and wood. Then my foot felt lighter.
I lost Homer.
“Homer where are you,” I yelled, sitting up and turning around.
“Right here Cortland,” Jamie replied grasping my boot again.
We began moving.
Firefighter’s first fire
In October 2005 Cortland city firefighter Chris Buttino responded as an interior firefighter for the first time to 51-55 Main St. for a structure fire.
The fire, later ruled arson, destroyed two retail businesses, an art gallery and apartments.
Investigators said the fire, likely with accelerants, began in the first-floor hallway between Smooches, a beauty and gift store, and adjacent antiques business Shangri-La.
As Buttino and then-firefighter Joe Morales began their sweep up an upstairs gallery, Buttino grabbed on to Morales’ boot.
The rule established by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is two in, two out — no one goes in alone and a team outside is ready as backup.
For a sweep, it’s always one person leads and the other hangs on to the first. Buttino did just as DeLine did and grabbed the leader’s boot.
“I lost Joe’s boot for a moment and I had this quick kind of ‘Oh my god the world’s coming to an end and this is going to be terrible,’” Buttino said. “Several seconds later, Joe noticed I wasn’t there. He turned around I saw his light and we went back to doing what we were doing. The 30 seconds — not even — of sheer terror was definitely there. But going through the rest of that night because we were there for six, seven hours was exhilarating.”
Cutters and hoses
It isn’t as easy as it used to be extricating someone from a car, said Lt. Anthony Santulli of the Albany Fire Rescue Squad.
Cars are made with heavier metals that are harder to cut. Increased electronics and designs mean firefighters must know the vehicle layout to protect themselves and victims. The cutters and spreaders weigh at least 45 pounds and cost $10,000 each.
“In about three years these tools will be obsolete,” Santulli said.
Hoses must be stretched so they don’t kink, blocking water. DeLine led the way grabbing the head of the hose and beginning her climb up two flights of stairs at the training center. With the OK, water came through the hose fast and the hose expanded and looked like a heavy snake.
Hoses aren’t the only way to get water to a building. Some vehicles have a deck gun. Albany firefighter John Brady showed how each part worked. Aim the deck gun at a fire — or even just the nearby woods — and watch as water shoots out of it. It’s a rush.
It smelled like a campfire as I watch the flames — red, yellow, orange — engulf the hay and wood.
I knelt to avoid the smoke that had encased the top half of the room. I grabbed the infrared camera and aimed it toward the flames — 200 degrees, then 300, then 400 and more.
I reached out at the fire. The comfort of a safety wrapped me up as the firefighting gear acted as a barrier between me and nature. I stood watching as the flames grew and the temperature rose.
“This is like a trash fire for us,” Albany firefighter Patrick Hines had said.
I felt like the marshmallow on the end of stick being lightly toasted over a campfire. Not burning, just warm. If not for the gear, I’d have been a burnt marshmallow.
And then they sprayed the hose. The fire, with nowhere else to go, flew to the ceiling and down the sides of the wall around me before being extinguished.
Maximum temperature? Between 600 and 700 degrees.
Normal fire for a firefighter? Above 1,000 degrees.
Buttino walked up the stairs of the 51-55 Main St. building in October 2005 with nowretired Capt. Mike Anderson and Capt. Tom Casterline. They entered a hall where the fire was starting to grow. The pump wasn’t getting water to the hose.
“As we were waiting for water, we watched the fire start coming down over us,” Buttino said.
It was an “oohhh, ahhh,” moment for the new firefighter, like being surrounded by fireworks.
The fire grew worse and the team began to back away before water filled the hose and blasted toward the fire.
“It (the fire) went up, curled around and went down the sides of the wall,” he said.
Eighty-five feet up.
“Don’t think about how high you are.”
A moment, I was having a moment: a brief panic attack. My breathing rapidly increased: ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom.
“I can’t do this,” I said to Chris.
“You’re not far from the top,” he replied I looked up. So close. I was so close. I took the next step, more than three-quarters of the way to the top.
“I was doing this. I am going to do this.”
Then the ladder began to bounce, just enough to rattle me.
The moment was back. The fear of missing a step.
“Oh my god this is shaking! Why is it shaking? Does it always shake this much?” I blurted.
“It shakes more than this when we’re going up it,” he replied. “Lean against the side railing to stabilize yourself, then keep going if you can.”
“You can do this.”
My left hand grabbed the next rung, my right foot moving up the next step in synch. “Breath in as you grab, breath out as you step and just keep going.”
Soon enough I was at the top.
“You did it,” Chris said.
“All right, get me off this thing,” I replied.
Down was easier, Chris watching my footing. “Five, four, three, two, one,” he counted.
And there it was, sweet earth under my feet.
“You did it,” he said again. “How are you feeling?”
The rush, the pure adrenaline flowed through me.
“I want to cry,” I replied.
“Do you need a hug?”
“No, I’m good.”
“That’s the rush he was talking about. That’s the adrenaline. That’s what it must feel like during a fire.”