It’s OK…it’s not a grenade. Pull the pin; I promise, it won’t explode,” says Assistant Fire Chief Chris Tracy. He’s talking about the pin on a fire extinguisher. As odd as it sounds, I’ve never actually used one. They’re such a common household safety measure now, I know to have one in my house—but I have never bothered to figure out how to use one. “Nothing will happen,” he continues. “It just allows you to squeeze the handle.” His words make sense, but they’re entering my thoughts slowly, trying to find a moment to jump into the stream of everything else I’m trying to think about; it’s like merging into rush hour traffic on I-95—get in when you can.
Before you boast that you would be able to do it, you should know that I’m at the Fairfield Regional Fire School and geared up in a hazard vest, protective hat and oversized goggles, and there is a group of emergency professionals watching me. A pan of fire burns a couple of steps way, and I’m supposed to put it out rather than just hand over the extinguisher to one of the experts at my elbows. This is my learning moment. Feeling the heat, it’s all very real—and trying to remember what I’m supposed to do, I start doubting and double-checking what was so recently a clear, organized to-do list.
My to-do list, specifically, is offered in an easy-to-remember acronym: PASS. “P” for pull the pin; “A” for aim the extinguisher; “S” for squeeze the handle (now that I’ve pulled the pin); and “S” for sweep the spray toward the base of the fire. I concentrate on each step, encouraged by those around me, and put out the fire in short time. I must admit: I’m proud of myself. And why not? I feel empowered, as if I could do this if my dinner caught fire at home. I look around, ready for a pat on the back. “Maintain deployment!” the assistant chief barks. “Sometimes the fire will come back.” Oh, and there it goes—another burst just after I had put it out. How did that…? Doesn’t matter. I know what to do. Pin already pulled, I simply aim, squeeze and sweep. Again, just like a pro I control and extinguish another fire. It sparks up again like one of those annoying prank birthday candles. Huh…? I catch a few smiles now. Of course. I missed that Tracy holds the control to the simulator; he can start the fire whenever he wants. Now that I’ve seen that, he allows the fire to go out finally.
My visit to the training facility on Rod Highway, a 1950s Nike site awkwardly paired with a reclaimed school annex—up for, and in desperate need of, a $9 million overhaul—is a lesson in dealing with overload. Not the flash-fire, cave-in, running-into-burning-building crises trained professionals face, but, rather, the town-wide situations that call citizens to help themselves if not also a neighbor, like during a flood. Police, firefighters, and EMTs can’t be everywhere, but Fairfielders can go a long way in helping themselves. Better if they’re properly prepped through a public-education program. Funded by state grants, running CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) doesn’t cost taxpayers anything, and the skills and confidence are priceless. The minimum twenty-hour course covers the essentials. The course in Fairfield goes thirty hours because of “add on” skills like running an emergency shelter and emergency pet shelter. Norma Peterson, the citizen corps coordinator, points out that the skills can help you at home or in the neighborhood even if you never participate in a town deployment. In other words, everything from a flat on I-95 in the rain at midnight to not freaking out if Sunday’s dinner ends in a smoky mess. “Public education is so important,” says Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid. “The more time we spend on it, the less likely it is that we’ll have to go out and pull someone from a dangerous situation.” And with CERT taking on tasks, the pros can focus on saving lives and property in fires, explosions, medical crises, and car accidents.
How many times have you been stuck at Post and Pine Creek—waiting, waiting, waiting—even though you can see, right there, a perfectly good chance to slip into the flow? And if you’re not glaring at the emotionless traffic light, it might be the very human traffic officer? I may be reformed now that I’ve tried a moment in those shoes (the lights are still open to criticism).
Deputy Police Chief Chris Lyddy is my instructor for advanced training in traffic safety. He positions me in the middle of the parking lot. A car probably hasn’t passed this spot in days, possibly weeks. Yet this, he says, is mine to own.
“OK, this is a four-way intersection, and there are cars on each side of you,” he begins. “Assess need, pick your best spot, use simple commands. Choose a car, point to it and clearly direct it.” I’m told to raise my other hand to stop the other cars and to, above all else, keep the flow going and under control. Use commanding body language. Like any trained emergency professional, I’m supposed to create a safe environment out of chaos. Or in my training case, “chaos.” “That’s it,” he encourages me as I wave on the oncoming imaginary traffic. “Keep those two lanes of traffic going—but, wait, those guys are getting stressed.” “Well, this is stressful,” I say. Without so much as a seagull feather flying by from the upwind transfer station, I am stressed about keeping these “cars” going. Lyddy appreciates my response but reminds me that I would only do this assignment if there was an emergency in town—and those drivers would be more stressed than during a morning commute. After a few hours, it would be physically and emotionally exhausting. We move on to learn how to light a flare. The striker is on the inside of the cap—who knew? “Strike away from you—it’s burning phosphorus and you don’t want that on your clothes,” he says. I get the flame on my first try and begin to feel like a real CERT member.
TAKING IT ALL IN
Back inside, we talk about triage. Assistant Fire Chief Tracy says, “Think about last summer,” when the Metro-North train was stopped in the heat. “If it had been some other incident, with casualties, we’d be overwhelmed. Fire would be first on the scene…but we’d have to rely on people like Norma to assist with identifying victims.” He explains tag cards (green for minor, yellow for delayed, red for immediate, and black for morgue). Two people (a CERT member paired perhaps with a firefighter, who are EMT trained in Fairfield) go from patient to patient and identify priority needs. “We need all the help we can get,” he says, so the pros can do the “heavy rescue.” We discuss running a homeless shelter, setting up a pet shelter, and even radio communications. In the end, I am clear that the responsibility begins with me—the citizen. And that means being prepared and proactive: arrange a plan; pack supply kits for home, on the go, and in the car; have the pet’s documentation and cage ready. Norma says, “Run through ‘What if’ scenarios.” Where will you go? Where will you meet family members? How will you escape home or work? What would you need in a shelter—do you have those things? She says to ask yourself these questions when you’re waiting in line or in traffic—anytime before an emergency happens. After a long afternoon, I feel like I’ve done my time. Speaking of the full course, Deputy Fire Chief Art Reid concludes, “We squeeze a lot into those thirty hours.” I can only imagine how well I’d be prepared.
More on CERT at citizencorp. Classes run 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays in March.