Chin-straps in Disaster City

Fire school was rough. Fun as hell, and rough. Consider getting to Disaster City in College Station, Texas, post nine eleven as my own small, brown, female self in company of other operators, one of whom, was making jokes including bomb….while having a Muslim first name, looking decidedly Asian and sporting a mohawk at least six inches tall. Dude, I was thinking, “If they come get you, I am going to swear on my mother’s grave that I have never seen you before in my life.”

Disaster City is the 92 acre campus that Texas A&M Extension Engineering Service (TEEX) uses to train folk in techniques ranging from search and rescue to putting out airline fires. They can simulate industrial gas fires. There is an entire passenger plane that they can set on fire at will. The WHOOMP! of ignition is one thing. Ignition and then a casual thumb and “okay go close the valve”….sump’n else entirely. “Pardon me Sir?” “Which valve?” “The one that is enclosed in flames, which are roaring like an effin’ train?”

Fire training in Chaguaramas can be done inside the hull of an old ship. When they close the thick steel door, it’s disorienting because eyes open, eyes closed - same dark…your brain goes….”hmmmmm. What dis?” Some folk find out at that point that they’re claustrophobic or are more afraid of the utter dark than they knew, or decide that the place they’re at is not a place they’re staying. One large muscled dude, known for loud cussing, on being put into the ship’s hull, stood just inside the door, and disregarding every instruction to the contrary, stayed there, knocking at said door, requesting ever so politely “please let me out,” refusing to do anything but, until he was removed.

In Disaster City one version of the search and rescue exercise is inside a wooden building. It looks plain on the outside and is not very large. Inside is an obstacle course funhouses set-up where the space opens and narrows, floors slope and are uneven and walkways suddenly become dead ends….You get to go through in full darkness. Fun times. Knowing that technique could be a life and death thing was sobering. Between having grown up with siblings, some of whose idea of a good time involved games that made scaffolding into monkey bars, years of gymnastics, not being very large and having a fondness for absurdity, physical and otherwise…performing the exercise itself was somewhere between not a big deal and fun…Get in, do the sweep sweep step, foot and hand, figure out the spaces, move through.

Donning Bunker gear - the heat resistant fireman’s clothes, pants, boots jacket, balaclava, air tank, full face respirator, helmet and gloves - is another test. You need to don fully - including switching on your air in three minutes. With practice, the gear was doable. More technique. Arrange your gear bag - pants in boots, jacket folded inside out, balaclava in helmet…Practice donning, practice prepping, again, doable. But the chin strap. Man, I hate the feel of the chin strap. The chin strap is what holds the helmet in place, the chin strap is necessary. It goes over the balaclava and sits behind the rubber seal of the full-face respirator. The helmet’s heavy enough that it actually pulls against the strap against your neck. At that point, I didn’t have locs…but my head’s big. Small face, big head. Big head, big helmet, proportionally long strap needing to be adjusted. Always ending up just at my tonsils.

Search and rescue in full gear - a whole new world. Where you fit before, you might not fit with an air tank on. Your field of vision is constrained by the respirator, which also adds the echo of the sound of your breathing. There’s the sound of air coming from the tank and the click of the regulator valve. And.the.chin.strap. Large old Texan fire dudes were looking at me, hands akimbo, heads to the side. I was fast. In, mind the techniques, find the victim (dummy or object set for retrieval) and out. Here’s the vic. Air off, mask off, helmet (chinstrap attached) off off off.

Motivation is a helluva thing.

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