.Anxiety, Courage and Adrenaline Inside Firefighter Academy

[Editor’s Note: In the wake of the 2020 CZU August Lightning Complex Fire, which destroyed 1,490 structures, consumed 86,509 acres and killed one civilian, Lompico resident Ryan Masters volunteered to be a firefighter for the Zayante Fire Protection District. Expecting to “maybe help clear brush or something,” the 48-year-old writer was instead enrolled in a five-month paramilitary boot camp—the 2021 Santa Cruz County Fire Fighter Academy. The 2022 Basic Fire Fighter Academy began on Jan. 16 and runs through May 2. Designed to accommodate volunteers, the 2022 BFFA Academy requires significantly fewer hours than the 2021 Santa Cruz County Fire Fighter Academy, but doesn’t offer a nationally registered Firefighter I certification. The 2022 class consists of 34 cadets from seven different Santa Cruz County fire departments. For more information about joining the fire service or enrolling in the next academy, contact your local fire department or district.]

The three-story training structure was on fire atop Ben Lomond Mountain. As Alpha Company sized up the stack of smoking storage containers, Ben Lomond Battalion Chief Mike Ayers called out, “Fire, second floor, Delta bedroom.” I sent RJ and Jacob to force the Alpha-side door and assigned the nozzle to Trader Joe, instructing him to pull the inch-and-three-quarters pre-connect hose from our engine.

As RJ and Jacob forced the door open with the irons, Trader Joe dropped the nozzle and first coupling at the threshold of the door while I flaked out the rest of our hose in a hasty effort to keep the slack from kinking. Once Trader Joe had called for water and cleared the line, we masked up, advanced the charged hose through the first floor, up a flight of stairs, and into the Delta bedroom, where we found the seat of the fire.

I slipped past my nozzle man’s position at the door, into the fire room, and vented the window. As Trader Joe opened the bail and spun the nozzle right to fight, I hit the floor and hugged the wall. The room roared with smoke and steam as the heat geysered out of the structure.

“Now you’ve got a vehicle fire. Exterior. Delta side,” Chief Ayers bellowed from outside. I jumped to my feet and helped Trader Joe hump the hose out the way we’d come, around the Alpha-Delta corner, and into the teeth of a fully involved van fire. Widening the stream into a perfect curtain through the gaping windshield, Trader Joe extinguished the blaze using less than 100 gallons. Fire doused, we shut down the water, uncoupled the hose, drained it, and prepared to re-lay it in the engine.

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In all, it had taken us less than five minutes to douse both of the scenario’s fires. Not bad. Chief Ayers dinged my hose management skills—I could’ve flaked at a better angle to the door—but generally praised our performance. Like usual, I mainly just felt relieved we hadn’t disappointed the old man.

At 2,600 feet, spring may have brought bitterly low temperatures to the summit of Ben Lomond Mountain, but morale hovered at an all-time high. We were officially half-finished with the 2021 Santa Cruz County Fire Fighter Academy. It was hard to comprehend. The end of our Structural Firefighting unit was nigh. All that remained, warned Capt. Dan Bonfante, was “Firefighter Survival.”

Because a RIC, or Rapid Intervention Crew, can’t always reach a fallen or trapped firefighter in time, academy cadets spent two weeks practicing the fine art of saving our own asses. During Firefighter Survival, we trained for situations I prayed none of us would ever have to use on a real fireground.

We kicked off the unit by studying a litany of fatal case studies, including a 2005 Bronx apartment fire in which six firefighters were forced to jump from a fourth-story window after the fire blew up on the floor below them. The tragedy changed the way firefighters operate on the floor above a fire and introduced escape ropes and bailout training as standard safety measures. “We like to say that the fire service is 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress,” said Chief Ayers. “But you can thank a dead firefighter for just about every safety code we have today.”

Proper window hang technique can save a firefighter’s life. PHOTO: PHOTO: SLV STEVE/STEVE KUEHL

The academy’s Firefighter Survival skills fell into two broad categories: entanglements in confined spaces and window bailouts. You could be forgiven for assuming jumping headfirst out a second-story window was the sketchier of the two, but the Maze was universally considered the academy’s most brutal and spirit-crushing challenge. Packed into a three-story cube, this disorienting and claustrophobic “confidence course” required cadets to crawl through 140 feet of tunnel, its snag-choked corridors a mere 16 inches wide in places. It had inspired years of academy horror stories.

Thankfully, the curriculum called for a gradual progression into the Maze. We each disassembled and reassembled our Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus, or SCBA, blind, detecting its various components by feel. We practiced loosening our harness straps and altering our gear’s profile to fit through absurdly tight spaces. We learned to identify various types of building construction and practiced busting through sheet rock with a flat-head axe. And because nearly every house on the West Coast is built with 16-inch studs in its walls, we learned to slip through this slim margin. This escape move required us to proceed cylinder-first through the narrow gap, which meant approaching the wall backwards, rolling one shoulder as if doing the backstroke, and “swimming” through to the other side.

On the weekend before the Maze, we practiced on a 20-foot entanglement prop stuffed full of various gauges of wire, naked bed springs and other jagged metal bits designed to snag on a firefighter’s equipment. I found that navigating the entanglement box was similar to scuba diving through a kelp forest. It required sweeping the wires gently to one side with an arm and making subtle adjustments to my profile, in particular to my air cylinder’s vertical stem. The moment I felt resistance, I paused to assess the situation, identify which wire was taut, retreat a few inches, untangle and move on.

As commanding officer of Alpha for the month of March, my company’s problems were my problems. During our confined-space drills underneath the Boulder Creek fire station a few weeks earlier, I’d discovered that one of my guys, Peter, suffered from claustrophobia. Built like Colossus, Peter was the largest man in the academy, which only compounded the problem.

As Firefighter Survival loomed on the calendar, I tried to downplay the Maze to Peter, but it had become a favorite topic among the cadets. Two years earlier, one firefighter had been hung up so badly, only a reciprocating saw could free him. “Better get the saw!” had become a catchphrase in the days leading up to the Maze.

Santa Cruz Fire Fighter Academy cadets at ease on the tarmac. PHOTO: SLV STEVE/STEVE KUEHL

Firefighter Survival didn’t start well for Peter. He panicked in the entanglement prop, briefly reminding me of a bull I once helped Western Shoshone ranchers funnel into a castration pen. After experimentally poking his big head and shoulders through the curtain of wire and not liking what he found there, Peter had whinnied loudly and backed out, hopelessly entangling himself at the mouth of the prop as he retreated. To his credit, he took a few moments to calm down, reentered the prop and slowly but surely worked his way to the other side.

Unfortunately this modest achievement failed to instill much confidence in the big man. The Maze dominated his mind. He talked about it constantly or fell quiet for long periods of time while we ran other drills, lost in gloomy thought. At times, I caught him staring up at the third-floor of the training structure, where the Maze awaited.

When the time finally came to confront the Maze, no one wanted to do the first lap. What if the instructors had screwed up this year and it was impassable? What if we got stuck and had to be rescued? What if we ran out of air and couldn’t reach our masks? I told everyone to shut the fuck up. “I’m going first,” I said. “If I can make it, anyone can make it.” This appeared to satisfy everyone. Of course, now I had to do it.

Sure, it was my responsibility as C.O., but I also felt very protective of my younger guys. All but Trader Joe were roughly the same age as my son and, in some ways, they all reminded me of him. Raising my son was probably the hardest thing I’d done in my life, and I’d be the first to admit I probably could’ve done a better job. I didn’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me I was probably compensating.

I knelt before the entrance to the Maze, clicked into my air and crawled inside. Built primarily of plywood, it contained three separate levels of tunnels, numerous dead ends and only one correct way through. Little-to-no light penetrated its tight confines, but I could feel various hose lines with my gloved hands. The key was not losing contact with the original hose line once you started. The others led to dead ends.

This, of course, was far easier said than done. Once inside, the Maze’s tunnel tapered into nothingness. I closed my eyes and groped ahead. The dark, ever-constricting space seemed to end at a tiny gap. Beyond, I felt the tunnel make a hard left, nearly a u-turn. I retreated a few feet, loosened my straps, shrugged my cylinder off my right shoulder to clear its stem and jammed my body ever deeper into the Maze.

Because it required a singular focus to progress past each obstacle while simultaneously not losing the hose line or freaking out, I’d be hard pressed to accurately describe the Maze’s layout. In hindsight, it was like crawling blind through a series of increasingly smaller storm drains that had been stuffed with chicken wire.

At one point, the Maze required a nauseating upside-down corkscrew into a space that didn’t suggest any exit on the other side. At another, I was crammed inside what felt like a wooden truss. I could only continue once I’d realized the way out was straight up.

Cadets learn to escape through 16-inch wide gaps in walls during the Firefighter Survival portion of the academy. PHOTO: RYAN MASTERS

As I slipped through the last obstacle, my SCBA’s vibe alert began clicking. I was low on air. Rushing now, I unsnagged a thick metal wire from an SCBA strap and fell three feet headfirst into the exit tunnel with a grunt. As amber and red low-air lights flashed in my mask display, I inch-wormed from the Maze back out into the blessed light.

Kneeling, I stripped off my mask, sweat pouring from my flushed face, vibe alert sounding. “Fucking hell,” I gasped. Pale as a corpse, Peter knelt at the entrance of the Maze, ready to enter. I forced a smile and gave him a weak thumbs up. “No problem,” I lied.

Peter understood the stakes. If we didn’t complete the Maze, we didn’t complete Firefighter Survival, which meant we wouldn’t receive our Firefighter I certification—which meant every ounce of this would be for naught. Peter was in the Maze for 10, then 15 minutes. I could hear the captain from Watsonville Fire whispering advice and words of encouragement. At times, the captain’s light flashed from deep within the Maze as he guided the young cadet.

Stop and consider your phobias for a moment. What turns your guts to mush? Now imagine confronting that fear in front of an audience of peers with your career and reputation on the line. That’s what the fire academy asked Peter to do. When he finally crawled out of the Maze, vibe alert clicking and face flushed, to join me at the rehab station, I wanted to hug the big lug.

Peter unzipped his turnout coat and pounded water, a happy grin on his face. Perhaps sensing this self-satisfaction, Capt. Bonfante altered his direction of travel on the tarmac to pass by the rehab station. His face inscrutable behind aviator sunglasses, red helmet, and blue Covid bandana, he said, “You two have time to do it twice. Get back up there. This time blind.” 

“Yes sir,” I replied. With that, the Captain was gone.

Peter’s face calved like a glacier. “I can’t do it again,” he murmured, almost to himself. “C’mon,” I told him. “Now we know the way.”

The idea of reentering the Maze didn’t thrill me either. Ignoring the nervous chatter of the younger Alphas on deck behind us, the captain from Watsonville Fire stuffed paper towels into my mask to ensure total blindness. When he patted me on my helmet to indicate I was good to go, I clicked into my air and, without hesitation, crawled back into the Maze like a crippled mole. As it turned out, total blindness was preferable to partial sight, which could be vague or even misleading in the cluttered space. The second time through, I cut three minutes off my time. More importantly, I only used half my cylinder. All the time in the world didn’t matter if you ran out of air in an IDLH—Immediate Danger to Life or Health—zone.

Although Peter’s second lap wasn’t much faster than his first, he also emerged from the Maze with plenty of air. That was huge. All told, only four of us would be tested by the Maze twice. Peter was the largest and most claustrophobic among us, yet the big man screwed up his courage to the sticking place and—twice!—didn’t fail. It was no small achievement.

After enduring the Maze, the second-story ladder bailouts seemed totally doable. After all, a rope belay would protect us from falling to our deaths. Yet Capt. Bonfante warned us not to be complacent. Cadets had torn shoulders and broken arms performing the bailout.

We began by practicing the window hang. “You don’t want to be hanging by your fingertips. You want to use your larger muscles,” Bonfante said, demonstrating how to maintain a low profile while exiting the window to minimize exposure to heat and smoke.

Over and over, we practiced clearing the window of glass, slipping out, hanging from its metal sill by the crook of one elbow and knee, then pounding the side of the structure and calling for a ladder. With each rotation, I could feel the bruising settle deeper into the soft meat behind my joints.

Next, we clipped into a harness and practiced the head-first ladder bailout from the structure’s second-floor window. As you exited the window, the key was to focus on the ladder, not the ground. On your way out, you slid your right hand under the second ladder rung from the top, grabbed the third rung with the same hand, then extended your left hand to the fourth rung on the opposite side of the ladder and grabbed it. In one motion, you let the rest of your body follow your head and torso out the window. The more compact you remained, the less impact and stress your body endured when your feet swung around to find the rungs of the ladder. You wanted your boot heels to almost kick your butt as you rotated out the window and onto the ladder.

I felt comfortable with the ladder bailout—perhaps too comfortable. When we moved on to the final Firefighter Survival skill, the hose slide, I rushed things a bit. While transferring onto the hose, I slammed my rib cage against the window’s sharp metal sill. The pain was immediate. I felt like I’d punctured an organ, but I continued down the hose and tried to ignore the injury.

Adrenaline and pride carried me through the remaining hose slide rotations, but a few hours later, while rolling up a 50-foot length of hose and carrying it back to the engine during clean up, I began to suspect I’d seriously injured myself. I could feel something popping in and out of place where my torso met my abdomen. I prayed it wasn’t my rib. Everyone in the academy was dealing with one or more significant injuries, but we all dreaded something major—something that could jettison us from the academy. Only ten weeks remained until graduation. Quitting would kill me. It was unthinkable.

That night, while I lay in the bath, bruises formed like storm clouds along my right arm and ribs, inner thighs and calves. The injured rib area constricted my breathing. The excruciating popping had become so bad, I needed my wife’s help to even get out of the tub. As I lay in bed trying to sleep, I experienced profound dread.

The next day, I hesitantly visited the doctor for x-rays. When they proved negative, I wanted to hug the physician’s assistant. A broken or fractured rib would’ve ended my academy. A bad muscular injury, on the other hand, could be endured. It might even heal up over the upcoming Easter holiday if I remained totally immobile.

Yet the pain was considerable. If I bent over or leaned back in any way, the muscle felt like it was detaching from the bone. Maintaining the proper posture at all times quickly became a cold sweat-inducing exercise. The anticipation of the muscle popping out became worse than the actual pain. It was fucking miserable.

The following night, the academy gathered at Zayante Station 1 to take the written portion of our national registration exam for Structural Fire Fighting. As I eased slowly into my desk, the muscle popped and I winced. “You ok?” Capt. Bonfante asked. “Just a little tender,” I assured him with a nauseated smile. “All good.”

I took that test in physical agony, finishing first and passing with a tidy, but unspectacular 77 percent. I was more relieved to go outside and suffer in private while I waited for everyone else to finish.

When the academy parted ways for its “spring break,” I limped home to begin my convalescence. Ideally, I could recover in time to train for the skills portion of our national registration exam for Structural Fire Fighting, which would take place the following weekend on Ben Lomond Mountain. I’d be expected to perform complex firefighting skills that required a fully functioning rib muscle, including throwing ladders and advancing charged hose up stairs.

Resigned to physical rest, I spent the week working my 9-to-5 from the couch, gobbling ibuprofen, and applying ice to my lower right rib. Yet cruel fate wasn’t finished with me. At 1:20 p.m. on April Fool’s Day, my cell phone exploded with messages of a confirmed structure fire in Lompico. I couldn’t believe it. All of my gear was right outside my door. Yet, instead of responding to Station 1 and jumping on a rig, I was forced to listen to the sound of Engine 2410’s distant sirens approaching Lompico Canyon.

Before long, the sound of Felton’s engines joined in as 2310 and 2311 arrived to provide mutual aid. When the units arrived on scene, they found heavy smoke and active flames pouring from the home. A crew from Zayante quickly engaged the fire and prevented it from spreading to nearby structures and wildland.

Listening to the sirens from my couch was almost too much to bear. I experienced the same sense of powerlessness that our evacuation from the CZU August Lighting Fire had inspired. Yet the structure fire was also a stark reminder of why I was in the fire academy.

Lompico was considered one of the riskiest communities in the state for wildfires. This box canyon had just one road in and out and was home to nearly 1,500 souls. What really scared me was the idea of a fire originating within the canyon. If we lost control of a structure fire during the dry, hot fire season and it spread into the surrounding wildlands, how in the hell would we evacuate everyone in time?

When I’d shown up at Zayante Fire Station 1 on Sept. 8, 2020 for a volunteer firefighter orientation, the CZU August Lighting Fire was still burning just a few miles to our west. During that introduction, we learned that the Zayante Fire Protection District had been short-handed for some time now. In fact, the community of Lompico had only one resident firefighter, Chief John Stipes, and he was set to retire the following year.

That meant Zayante Fire Station 2, located within Lompico Canyon, had been sitting idle for years. If just two of us managed to complete the necessary firefighter training, Chief Stipes had said, it would be possible to reestablish the Lompico substation, greatly increasing public safety inside the box canyon. The weird serendipity and startling clarity of this mission had appealed to me, and I’d signed up.

We needed to get Station 2 operational again. That was the goal. But to help reopen the Lompico substation, I needed to finish the fire academy. And to finish the fire academy, I needed to get healthy. As the crews began the salvage and mop-up process down the street, I gingerly returned to my place on the couch.There was plenty of fire in my future—of that I was certain.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Ryan.
    Very well-written. Your words let me feel the intensity of not only your training, but your emotions and pain. I’ve broken and bruised my ribs numerous times (motorcycle mishaps), and am here to state that BRUISED ribs are just as painful, and take about as long to heal, as broken ribs!
    I appreciate your verve, and your commitment to our neighborhood, and our fire department. I’ve been living in Lompico for over 42 years, and share your concerns for our beautiful little box canyon.
    Proud to have you in our department.
    Lyle Fleming, Director, Zayante Fire

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