When I was little, I lived in my grandparents' house on Long Island. On the staircase leading up to my bedroom, my grandmother proudly displayed a plaque that read, "Never judge a man unless you've walked a mile in his moccasins."
I'm often reminded at the strangest times how universal that message continues to be. It surfaced again last Saturday during a "Fire Ops 101" event at the Memphis Fire Department's Chester Anderson Training Center in Frayser.
Held by the department and its union, Fire Ops took a motley assortment of media representatives and politicians, such as City Councilman Jim Strickland, State Representative Karen Camper, and State Senator Brian Kelsey, through a gauntlet of exercises designed to make them understand what firefighting is really like (translation: difficult, dirty, and downright exhausting).
The department and its union have been in the news lately because of a conflict over buying new vehicles for emergency needs, and they wanted to help decision-makers and media types understand their requests to Memphis City Hall or to state legislators.
Our first order of the day was to don about 80 pounds of gear. Our heavily padded jackets and pants were more palatable on a rainy day with temperatures in the 50s, but I can't imagine how miserable they would have been in summer.
We also donned protective hoods, helmets, oxygen tanks, masks, reinforced rubber boots, and gloves so thick they seemed to impede the process of hauling, pulling, pushing, and climbing. But I guess being clumsy is a lot better than being burned.
Next, we headed to the training areas where we put out car fires, pried off car doors with the jaws of life, performed CPR, and dragged our ponderous, plodding selves up flights of stairs into the simulation of an apartment fire. And then we tottered down a fire truck's aerial ladder with friendly handlers at our backs.
The simulated apartment fire was particularly surreal. Imagine lugging a heavy water hose with one hand while groping the walls as a guide through darkened hallways filled with smoke. The oxygen tanks on our shoulders and the helmets on our heads pressed down like thousand-pound thumbs.
We were slow. We were clumsy. And it became exceedingly clear that victims would have died had this been a real-life emergency.
We learned about something called the "golden hour," that window of time between when an emergency occurs and when a victim is beyond help. Usually, firefighters have about 10 to 15 minutes to stabilize patients to save their lives. Being slow is not an option.
At one point, as I dragged back to the main building for rehab — Gatorade and rest — Memphis Fire Services director Alvin Benson asked if I might be considering working for the fire department.
After a brief eye roll, all I could say was, "No, I'm too much of a wuss." A skinny twit who can't even drag a hose for 10 minutes without getting winded probably doesn't need to be on the front lines.
But I suspect, like me, plenty of other wusses out there are only too glad to relegate such hair-trigger heroics to the pros.
As for the Fire Ops training class: We came. We saw. We wilted (at least some of us did). And in our carefully controlled environment, we were reminded exactly what it means to walk in someone else's mocassins.