Fire Chief Bob McDermott has seen a lot of changes in firefighting since he started working for the Forest Park Fire Department in 1986.
The Baby Boomer crowd, for example, will remember how firemen in those days would ride to a fire standing on the back of the fire engine and holding on for dear life. Now they ride inside the cab and are required to wear seat belts.
One of the biggest changes McDermott noted is that the fires themselves have changed. “They burn hotter and faster and are smokier,” he explained, “because everything nowadays is made of plastic, which is petroleum based. That’s why when a smoke detector goes off in your building, you want to get out as quickly as you can.”
The equipment firefighters use has changed along with the kind of fires they are fighting. When the alarm goes off in the firehouse, he said, “Our bunker coats, bunker pants, bunker boots, nomex hood, helmet and gloves weigh about 25 to 30 pounds.”
Nomex, he explained is a high-tech fabric that allows body heat to escape even as it shields the firefighter from the external heat of the fire.
“In addition,” he continued, “we carry a thermal imaging camera, a portable radio, an escape rope, wire cutters, and a knife. We never enter a building without carrying a fire extinguisher and either an axe or a Halligan bar. That, along with an air tank, can total 75-80 pounds.”
Because fighting a fire while carrying that much additional weight is stressful, there is a strong emphasis in the firehouse on physical fitness. Each day, for example, firefighters are required to work out in a small gym right in the station, which includes a treadmill, StairMaster, free weights, a bench for bench pressing, and a rack for doing squats.
“If you look in the refrigerator upstairs,” he added, “you will notice a lot of healthy food. You talk about a change in culture — 30 years ago, most of the guys smoked. Every year about 100 officers die in the line of duty and half of those are from heart attacks. In this job, you wear heavy equipment, are doing a strenuous job and are working in extreme conditions. In our firehouse culture, there has been a refocus on physical fitness.”
In addition, every Forest Park firefighter gets an annual checkup by a physician trained in what the job of a firefighter entails and what physical fitness means in the context of doing that job.
The “consumption drill” is an example of how training has changed to adapt to new realities. Firefighters suit up in full gear and go through a series of activities to simulate the stress of fighting a fire. Loaded with up to 80 pounds of gear, they go up and down stairs, hit a tire 10 times with an 8-pound sledgehammer and pull weights up the rack that is used for drying hoses.
The main purpose of the drill is to increase awareness. The air tank on their backs contains enough air for 30 minutes if you are sitting in a chair in a resting position. But in the stress of fighting a fire, much more air is consumed. McDermott asked one man who had just finished the drill, “How many minutes?” “Seventeen,” he replied.
One thing that hasn’t changed, the chief said, is awareness. Firefighters are taught to always be aware — of your orientation in a building, how long it would take you to get from where you are to the front door, and how much air is left in your tank.
The new technology has been helpful, he said, but has its limitations. In many fires the smoke is so thick you can’t see where you are. The thermal imaging cameras can be very helpful in locating the fire itself or people in the building.
What if the batteries in the camera run out?
“That’s why we teach everyone the old-school tactic of finding a wall when entering a building,” he said, “and feeling your way along it as a way of maintaining awareness of where you are at all times.”
McDermott said fires can get so hot, a “flashover” can occur, which would kill you no matter how much protective gear you’re wearing.
“You can’t learn to judge how hot is too hot from a textbook at the academy,” he explained. “For those kinds of situations, men and women who are new on the job learn from the more experienced people. I’ve been a firefighter for 30 years and I still learn from our people every day.”
“After a fire,” he noted, “we get together in the training room and do a fire critique. I’ll give my point of view — what I saw, did and why — and everyone will contribute from their perspective. There are plenty of times I will learn from them based on their experience. We listen to and learn from each other.”
Another change has been increased cooperation with neighboring fire departments. “When we go to a fire here in Forest Park, you’ll often see fire trucks from North Riverside, River Forest or Oak Park there with us, and we will go to help them.”
If you have firefighters working in intense heat with only 17 minutes of air in their tanks, it is really helpful to have people from other departments as backups when you come out of the building to get some water and get a new air tank.
In addition, each village has budgetary restraints that limit the number of firefighters available in any one community, so neighboring departments in this area willingly help each other out without any billing for services. Just last week, he said, Forest Park firefighters were in Cicero helping with an incident there. And after Hurricane Katrina, Forest Park even sent its ladder truck to New Orleans.
“I would never in my wildest imagination have thought that the Forest Park Fire Department would ever be on Bourbon Street,” he laughed.
Remnants in the firehouse at the corner of Desplaines and Wilcox give a hint of what firefighting was like over a hundred years ago.
“The rack where we dry our hoses,” he noted, “used to be the hayloft for the horses.” He pointed to a 2-by-2-foot section of grooved cement. “That’s what’s left of the old floor, which was sloped toward the center so the waste from the horses used to pull the fire engines would run toward the middle and be flushed down the drain.”
The fire pole still exists in the Forest Park station although it has not been used for years. When stations began to be built on ground level in the newer suburbs poles were no longer needed and went out of favor in older buildings. Now, he said, as land becomes more valuable and new stations are being constructed with more than one story, fire poles are being used again.
When Steve Glinke, the chief who preceded him, looked into doing the work needed to bring the pole up to current code, he was told there would be a two-year wait because the company that does the work was so overwhelmed with requests.
With 24-hour shifts, the men and women spend a lot of time together. Seven firefighters and two paramedics on each shift get together every morning to determine the menu and the chores for the day.
That’s one thing that hasn’t changed, McDermott said. Firefighters form a family.