Monday, October 20, 2014

Feeling the weight on firefighters’ shoulders [with Video]

By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 1/31/2014

[Editor’s note: The following is a first-person report of Herald Staff Writer Clinton Dick’s recent visit with colleague Abby Eckel to the Ottawa Fire Department. For a video from the visit, go to www.ottawaherald.com]

Capt. Tim Matthias has saved many people in his nearly 24 years as a firefighter, but it’s those he wasn’t able to rescue who stick out in his mind, he said.

“I remember the ones we save, but I really remember the ones we didn’t,” Matthias, with the Ottawa Fire Department, said. “In my time, we’ve had 13 fire fatalities that I’ve been a part of. Those are the ones I think about.”

The life of a firefighter isn’t easy, and I got a little taste of that Tuesday morning at the Ottawa Fire Department, 720 W. 2nd St., Ottawa. Matthias, as well as Lt. Shawn Dillon, took Abby Eckel, Herald staff writer, and I on a tour of the station, built in 1973, and put us in full firefighter equipment for some firsthand experience of what it feels like inside the dense protective gear.

As a 140-pound guy, putting on more than 50 pounds of protective equipment felt more like doubling my body weight. Firefighters are trained to put on their protective gear, which includes pants, a coat, hat, a 30-pound air tank that straps around the shoulders and an air mask, in one minute and 45 seconds to go out on a call. Dillon performed this task at the end of our tour in an impressive one minute and 28 seconds. I did not fair quite as well.

Training is of utmost importance to a firefighter, and even when someone has mastered everything, training doesn’t end.

“We don’t fight fires every day,” Matthias said. “We don’t go out to car crashes every day, so it is important to train to keep up with your skills. We try to train two to three hours a day. A typical training day would be some kind of classroom setting for 30 to 45 minutes, and then, weather permitting, we’ll go outside. We have a drill tower out back we run some drills on.

“We do a lot of medical training,” he said. “We do fire training consisting of reviewing buildings, putting our gear on for time, pulling hose, ladders ... stuff that we do on a pretty consistent basis, but you can always get better.”

Firefighters also train in specialty rescue areas — rope, water and confined space — where they spend considerable time, Matthias said.

TACKLING THE TRAINING

Eckel and I went through some training drills ourselves, including crawling on all fours wearing the protective gear, putting on and using an air mask hooked up to the air tank, and attempting to pick up a hydraulic cutter used to cut into vehicles at wrecks. Thanks to my skinny arms, I could barely hoist the 50-pound metal cutter above my waist in the protective gear, while Dillon was able to swing it over his shoulder with relative ease. Practice does make perfect.

With 20 full-time firefighters and seven to eight volunteers at the Ottawa Fire Department, down time is important too, even when everybody is almost always doing something.

“We stay busy,” Matthias said. “After 5 p.m., it is kind of our time. A lot of guys are going back to school right now. Myself included, we’ve probably got three, four, five guys taking college courses trying to do some college work. Everybody’s doing something.”

When a call comes in, Matthias’s captain duties are to make sure everyone, including his firefighters, are safe, he said.

“On a call, my initial duties are to make sure we get there safely, make sure we know where we are going and that we have enough resources,” he said. “Once we get there, I make sure the scene is safe and that I’m putting my people in the safest situation I can. Ultimately, my overall job is to get my firefighters home to their families. I take that to heart.”

On average, the Ottawa department goes out on calls six to seven times per day, Matthias said. Whenever a fire is reported, a firefighter’s battle isn’t always just with the flames, but with nerves.

“People who say they’ve never been scared going into a fire have either A) never fought in a fire or B) aren’t telling the truth,” Matthias said.

NOT ALL PHYSICAL

The job is 90 percent mental, Matthias said, and sometimes the physical and psychological wear and tear of fighting fires can be soothed not only by talking to co-workers, but by having a loving family outside the station, Matthias said.

“Of course you’ve got to have a strong support group at home,” he said. “You try not to take [the job] home, but you do, and I think most of us are lucky to have that support. As a captain, my job is to look for those signs of stress and all that comes with those types of calls.”

Family time might be very important to firefighters, as with any profession, but part of the job also is realizing that a firefighter spends a lot of time away from home. Matthias, who has been a firefighter for more than two decades — 17 years with the Ottawa department — said his family understands.

“Being a firefighter in a career department, you have the opportunity to be off [of the job] because you work kind of an odd shift, but you do miss a lot,” he said. “If you have to work Christmas, then you work it ... all those birthdays, anniversaries and stuff. Your family understands that. Of course after 20 some years, that is kind of the norm at our house.”

While I didn’t fight any fires, I was able to glimpse why Matthias is connected to his work. His co-workers are his favorite part of the job — they’re what make it all worthwhile, he said.

“You get into this job and you have to trust the person on your left, and on your right, and the person in front of you and the person in back. So I think the best thing for me is the people I work with and have worked with through the years,” Matthias said. “Very, very seldom do I come to work not wanting to come to work. I’m fortunate in that way because a lot of people aren’t as fortunate as I am, I guess. 

“This is always what I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ I don’t know. I’ve always been a firefighter and I always wanted to be a firefighter, so I guess I’m living the dream. The saddest day for me is the day I’ll have to retire.”

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