By LIBBY CLUETT
It's rare that I get to relay a story in first person. I'm glad for the chance to share my thoughts and experiences on why it is important to support local volunteer fire departments, especially when they have fundraisers, like the Mineral Wells VFD has Saturday, 3-7 p.m., with its Fajita Feed.
The quick answer to the question is “they protect people.” But it takes more than most people think to do that, which I found out, first hand, last Saturday.
I was given a unique opportunity – and I don't often use the word unique – thanks to the Mineral Wells Volunteer Fire Department and Captain Jerry VanNatta, to suit up and go into a burning building – by choice. The department was conducting training, burning the old Gene Lee house and adjacent rent house for the property owners.
When I arrived, as planned, VanNatta had the bunker gear ready. First I slipped out of my shoes and into his leather fire boots and bunker pants, tightened the suspenders, and then donned James Brooks' bunker coat and a Nomex hood. Brooks made sure the coat was secured and all the loose ends were under the Nomex hood, telling me could burn if not tucked in.
VanNatta handed me his fire helmet, which seemed very heavy at first. I walked toward the group of firefighters going in shifts into the building wearing the red captain's helmet.
There were at least 30 firefighters on hand, nearly half of whom were in training, including Seth Jacobson. A new firefighter with about two months on the force, according to VanNatta, Jacobson was very nice, greeted me and lent me his fire gloves, airpack SCBA and SCBA mask, so I could safely enter the burning house. He made sure I had everything on correctly, that all was strapped on and the mask was airtight.
As I awaited my turn to go inside, it seemed all I could focus on was my labored breathing through the mask. Now wearing at least 60 pounds of equipment, I forgot how heavy the helmet seemed at first.
VanNatta said the gear costs $5,000 for one fireman and I was glad I had it on.
My trainer was Mike H-O-L-M-E-S (he made sure several times I knew the spelling of his last name). He's on the MWVFD and works for the Haltom City Fire Department. After Seth hooked up my oxygen, H-O-L-M-E-S took charge of me as I walked inside in what seemed like a space suit.
We followed the hose inside the old Gene Lee house, stepping up where the house must have had an addition and making a U-turn into a seemingly very narrow hallway – I was told this was the size of most hallways in houses. It was at this point that my mind almost put on the brakes. I couldn't see, everything was pitch black and I was advised to kneel down and I could see better. I was disoriented.
Then Holmes said my name along with some other reassuring words I can't recall. Just hearing my name in that situation seemed to do so much to put me at ease.
I then saw a flash of fire and the silhouette of firefighters between the fire and me and I crawled toward them.
“Where's Libby?” asked Assistant Chief Lin Reasoner, who was in the room with the fire. He was waiting on me to get in position to take photos before he added fuel on the fire.
“Put your hand on Lin's shoulder,” Holmes said.
I did so, got ready to shoot and tried hard, but couldn't seem to operate the camera the way I wanted to with the thick fire gloves on. They warned me that I should move back or my camera might melt. However, it didn't seem that hot to me. Later, someone said it was in the neighborhood of 500 degrees, maybe more, but didn't feel like it.
“Through the years, they have improved the fire protection gear for the firefighters so well, that they have gone into fires and not realized how hot it is because they are so well protected,” VanNatta said. “They keep improving it.”
In addition to MWVFD, there were firefighters from Haltom City, Lone Camp and Gordon at last Saturday's training.
Conducting burns like this one not only gives the department a chance to train firefighters, but they typically receive donations from the property owner. But VanNatta said burning houses is “getting fewer and farther in between.”
It also takes a lot of pre-planning, he said, adding that the department has been working on this since November. They have to get everything in order, including clearance from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
But the advantage is: “It's how we learn to get people comfortable in houses,” he said. “They learn if you panic or get lost, you follow the hose out.”
I learned how easily this could happen.
“They are real confidence builders to new people and even people who have been into burning buildings before,” VanNatta said.
“It helps make us aware of problems we run into when we have an actual fire, [including the] furniture and everything in your way,” he said.
“It teaches you how the fire is going to react. Every fire is attacked differently, because every fire is different,” he said, explaining that a kitchen fire won't be the same as a bedroom fire and an upstairs fire has its added egress complications.
When Holmes encouraged me to go back inside, I did, this time without the camera, so I could get closer to the action. I knew what to expect now and followed Jacobson inside. It was his time to train.
In the back of my head I thought of why there is such a fraternal relationship among firefighters – there has to be to survive. And each one in that burning structure, even in a training situation, has to know there is someone who can take care of her or him.
I'm not light, but Holmes assured me they could (and would) get me out. He got me in and out of a burning building safely, and now holds a new place of distinction in my mind.
If I had gotten lost, passed out or couldn't move, there is a built-in safety measure – a “pass device” on the SCBA. VanNatta said it's a “warning system that if [firefighters] stay still for 30 seconds, it goes off and will help us locate them. They can't stand still.”
Since it was training, these went off periodically, and they are loud, like an audible house alarm.
Back inside the burning room, Jacobson was practicing an indirect approach to extinguishing a fire. VanNatta explained that in this method the firefighter would hit the ceiling, not the fire below, and “the water comes down on fire and starts to cool the room down and get the temperature down. The fire cools down and makes it more bearable for the firemen.”
To experience this, the trainer put hay on the fire and it shot up onto the ceiling, reminding me of the movie “Backdraft.” As the fire fingered towards us, Seth hit it high and moved the hose down, bringing the fire down to its origin.
As he did this a couple of times, I eventually felt the heat. But the fire lapping toward me, from above, made a bigger impression. I got a bit scared, and considered leaving at one point, but put my trust in those in charge who talked Seth through controlling it.
The biggest impression I left with was how important each piece of clothing and equipment is to a department, and how important it is to train each member.
Although this was a tremendous learning experience for me, I didn't need it to know how valuable volunteer firefighters are to a community. Shortly before the PK Complex Fire in 2011, which kept crews from Palo Pinto County and beyond occupied for close to a month, I came way too close to losing a family member to fire.
As my niece and two of her five roommates were inside the three-story pole house – she was in her pajamas, concentrating on her homework in her room on the third floor – the house caught on fire from the ground floor. The flames reached the second floor before the roommates noticed their house was burning and one went to the stairs and called for my niece to come “now.” She did as she was told and the two young athletes had to actually jump through the fire while coming down a flight of stairs. All three got out of the burning home safely. My niece lost everything except what she was wearing, even her car parked under the house.
Volunteer firefighters were the first responders and, although they couldn't save the house, they kept the fire from spreading and made sure no one was inside or injured. I realize the travesty of losing everything, but am so grateful for the chain of events that allowed my niece to get out of that house two years ago. Beginning with the firefighters, followed by the Red Cross and other service organizations, volunteers all helped begin to put the pieces back together.
I want to thank the MWVFD for the opportunity to go inside a burning building and, more importantly, for making sure I got out. Among those I haven't mentioned who were there, according to VanNatta, were Fire Chief Joel Thompson, Asst. Chief Robert Coker, Capt. Monte Parker Sr. and Carey McAliley. Others involved were Kim-John VanNatta, Jamie Harrison, Tracy Brockway, Chance Reasoner, Connie Parker – who oversaw lunch and Gatorade – Danny Earl, James Israel and Carla Hay Perdue. There were more, but the point is it takes a number of people in a volunteer fire department to ensure a community's safety.
The department's main fundraiser, the Fajita Feed, takes place Saturday at the Palo Pinto County Livestock Association Expo Building (800 Farm-to-Market Road 1821) I encourage everyone to pitch in $10 and dine out with the MWVFD at their primary fundraiser, or take out a meal if you can't join the fun. The event includes live entertainment and a silent and live auction.
VanNatta said the MWVFD also teaches CPR classes and will burn brush piles and fields “and get funds that way.” This is the chance, Mineral Wells, to support your local crew.