Firefighter For a Day

Flyer reporter tests her mettle.

| March 31, 2011

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.

Comments (9)

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Great article Lindsay. Thank you for your participation and support!

Shane Baker
Engine 44-B

Posted by harlyd2 on 03/31/2011 at 8:05 PM

Thanks Lindsay for being brave enough to see just what we do everyday. I think we were able to turn a few heads and give much needed understanding of what we do. I would hope next time this is held there will be many more decision makers to walk in our moccasins.

Larry Anthony

President, Memphis Fire Fighter Association

Posted by Larry Anthony on 03/31/2011 at 8:13 PM


Thank you for your story. It is very noble for Memphis' desk decision makers to get involved and see just what real decision making is about. You felt the weight that is carried on the job but did you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders? Do you feel the burden of pay cuts, pension cuts and budget cuts? These men and women are feeling this. But they feel something even bigger...
The love for their fellow human being, the love for the community because we're not there for the pay thats for sure. Thank you for caring for them Lindsay.

Dear Mr. Strickland et al..

Please don't stop here. Please spend a whole set on the job. Get on the truck. Get on the unit. SIT errrr I mean STAND at Methodist or The MED for hours waiting on a bed. Be so exhausted but comforted that you're pulling into the house. However, the brief few seconds is short lived because you're sent right back out. Want to get a feel of what it's like to experience the 911 abuse first hand? Sit down to eat your breakfast at 5pm where the lords blessing for that meal nearly ALWAYS begins with " Company Stand By" and you respond to " James" who was stuck in E Memphis and needed a ride to his cousins off Jackson Ave so Methodist Central was his hospital of choice where he helps himself off the stretcher and thanks us for the ride. Now get on back to the station. Pick a bunk, heck take the LT's bed! Doesn't matter, you won't be sleeping in it :) Get back to the station in the morning with anticipation of going home to see your children only to find out your relief is at another station because they were either detailed out or the budget didn't allow anymore OT slots. You finally arrive home I mean you finally arrive at your other job, landscaping, cutting grass or on a private ambulance for a 12 hour shift of transporting granny home because it was a medical necessity. Family wasn't available to do it. That 2nd job is going to wind up a full time 2nd job if you cut pay and pensions. Next day you're back at the fire station all refreshed and ready to do it again. Right???


Paramedic, President of nothing, Memphis Fire, Shelby County Fire and Rural Metro supporter.

Posted by Be our guest on 03/31/2011 at 11:45 PM

It's a nice bit of propaganda, and it serves its purpose of distracting the press and politicians from the real problems....reorganization and modernization.

Yes fire fighting is tough and requires a strong back. It requires a certain amount of dedication not seen in a lot of other professions, but the fact remains that the Memphis FD is dinosaur that needs to come into the 20th century (yes, I know the rest of us are in the 21st century, but baby steps). If half as much effort that went into this dog and pony show had been spent on efforts to improve the efficiency of the department, maybe we wouldn't have be worrying as much about layoffs and pay cuts.

While these programs may feel good, they disseminate false information and do little to remedy the problem.

Posted by mad_merc on 04/01/2011 at 6:52 AM

Merc, please elaborate what false information you claim was put out during this event. You seem to know so much, lets see it.

Posted by 3633 on 04/01/2011 at 4:32 PM


Just out of curiosity, what is so 'dinosaur' about the FD? It's the top rated city department EVERY year, our equipment and services have adapted to the needs of citizens. Routinely people drive to fire stations to get blood pressure checks, or to have smoke detectors installed in their homes. They addressed a major paramedic shortage, and have fully turned around a struggling EMS system, to be one of the best in the country. Although we are getting newer equipment as needed, the trucks we have are pretty old, but well taken care of. Fire personnel clean and maintain the stations they are assigned too, do you do that at your office? Unlike MPD who routinely destroy cars on a daily basis, how many careless accidents have you seen FD on the news for? Why didn't you go to the dog and pony show to see how it is for yourself? Must be nice sitting in your armchair.

Posted by Cmon Now on 04/01/2011 at 5:43 PM

Ok, point by point...

False claims first. The "Golden Hour" is a myth. It was created by Dr Crowley at the UM Baltimore trauma center to help ensure that all trauma patients went to his hospital. There is no correlation between response time, scene time, transport time and patient outcome as has been proven in several peer reviewed studies. Of course there are exceptions to every rule and sudden cardiac death, acute onset CVA's, maybe two to three other very specific illnesses are all. Blazing around the city with lights and sirens all of the time is unsafe and unnecessary. One of the best studies on teh subject of fire department first response was conducted by the Toronto FD. It proved that somewhere over 90% of all FD first responses to medical calls were unnecessary. If you want to save money, follow their advice and curtail the responses.

Yes the MFD is the top rated city service every year. But isn't the deck a bit stacked? The police department is not exactly the most loved group in the city; MLG&W sends you a bill every month that most of us gripe about; City schools...well enough said on that matter; MATA? That leaves the city council and the sanitation department. Now if the sanitation department would haul off the city council, they would win hands down. Anyway, not much of a competition.

If you were truly interested in adapting to the needs of the citizens, then EMS would be a third service run by a board consisting of the local ED directors and administered by the Health Dept. You would actually have fewer paramedics on the street and utilize a tiered service. Paramedics could staff mobile health clinics that could go into high risk neighborhoods and deliver primary care, thus saving untold amounts of money and ambulance runs. Again the facts are against you and a large, all ALS system. There is far too little medical oversight, and huge degree of skills deterioration. It has also been shown in more than one study that dual-role paramedics generally perform lower that is desired in one job or the other. Being a fire fighter is a profession. Being a paramedic is a separate profession. Be one or the other, but don't try to do both. Sure there are few folks that do both, but the majority can not.

And I wouldn't exactly say that you turned around a struggling EMS system. The fact is that a very good system was destroyed by mandatory cross training in the mid 90's coupled with pay cuts and dissolving the autonomous EMS Bureau. A lot of people left and a lot of talent and experience was lost for good. The actual delivery of care and how things operate has not improved (unless you consider the mandatory 12 hours). The system is still broken, overburdened, and still routinely runs out of units.

Yes, you sweep and mop and do the yard work. It's against SOP's and the MOU to do much of anything else. A little misinformation on your part again. Sure MPD has more accidents, but they also have more vehicles, logging more hours on the road, it's simply a matter of statistics. I'm not saying that that doesn't need to be addressed, but just pointing out that you're comparing apples to oranges.

Posted by mad_merc on 04/05/2011 at 9:06 PM

Merc, you must work for a private EMS company.

Posted by 3633 on 04/05/2011 at 9:52 PM


Gotta love how a simple recitation of facts filtered though some common sense makes merc both an armchair critic and a jealous competitor at the same time.

So which is it folks?

Posted by Neondragon on 04/05/2011 at 10:29 PM
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