Nfld. & Labrador·Video

So you wanna be a firefighter? Join Jeremy Eaton as he tries to make the grade

CBC reporter Jeremy Eaton tries out a number of firefighting training scenarios, just in case his journalism career doesn't work out.

I was invited along as the St. John’s Firefighters Association showcased its skills

The CBC's Jeremy Eaton hangs from the side of a training building in St. John's. (Steve Erbland)

There is a scene in the opening to the 1980s Inspector Gadget cartoon where the trench coat-clad crime fighter crawls through a tunnel.

As a kid, it always made me feel a little uneasy as there isn't much room to turn around.

In a room filled with fake smoke, and with me wearing about 75 pounds of gear and breathing through a mask, I climbed into a tiny tunnel at the Kenmount Fire Hall training centre.

With a GoPro attached to my chest, I had high hopes for some incredible footage.

I didn't make it very far. The tunnel was not big enough to crawl on your hands and knees; so you had to drag yourself forward and do a mini-backstroke to move though it.

It was terrifying.

In a safe controlled environment I couldn't crawl very far — and in the pitch black where you can't see anything I couldn't even count on the 'Kodak courage' to help.

So I bailed.

A firefighter for a day enters the tiny tunnel. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

The day-long training exercises saw politicians join in to see what it was like to spend a day in a firefighters' boots.

Dressed in firefighter clothing, around 25 non-firefighters took part in four scenarios to see the sorts of calls the department gets.

The first for my group was a medical emergency.

According to the firefighters leading us through the training, these calls make up about 75% of the emergencies they attend — and they are rarely easy.

With locations all over St. John's, Mount Pearl and Paradise, firefighters are often the first on the scene at emergency calls.

Rescuers for a day; trainees tackle an emergency call. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

That scenario ends and then the room shifts toward a powerful conversation as the firefighters share personal stories of what they've seen in the line of duty.

This isn't bragging, or sharing 'war stories,' but rather an attempt to give outsiders a front row seat. One firefighter talks openly of his PTSD and how he deals with it.

"We've really gotten proactive with different programs to look out for our members to be able to recognize the signs of PTSD," the association's Jim O'Toole said.

"We actually have a peer support team where firefighters talk to firefighters. We have road to mental readiness course that everyone in the department is after taking which teaches them about the signs of PTSD to recognize it."

We've really gotten proactive with different programs to look out for our members to be able to recognize the signs of PTSD.- Jim O'Toole

The human side of people who are often only seen running in and out of burning buildings is fully on display, leading at least one person in our group to wipe tears from their face.

The purpose of the event was to show decision makers what life is like for people who work and live in fire halls throughout the city; something they managed to do in the first hour.

The heavy, water filled hose is pulled up the stairs. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Forty firefighters volunteered their time on their days off to make the scenarios happen.

As the nighttime reporter at the CBC, I have seen many of them in action at fires and car crashes we've covered over the years, but we don't often chat as they are busy.

For two training exercises we wear a face mask and carry oxygen tanks, weighing about 40 pounds. The tank is strapped to your back and hips. The mask covers your face and a hose brings airs into it.

The first thing you notice is that you can't hear anything, just your Darth Vader-like breathing. Firefighter Mark Miller puts his face next to mine and yells instructions, but it's barely audible.

Our second scenario is to grab a fire hose filled with water; which is incredibly heavy, and walk up two flights of stairs to find the fire and save a baby.

The room is filled with manufactured smoke and it's eerily dark. I can see city Councillor Ian Froude in front of me, but not much else.

There is not much to see in the dark surrounded by smoke. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

St. John's Mayor Danny Breen took part in the training operations too.

"I thought I had a good understanding of how the fire department worked," he said.

"This was an eye opener."

While it's brightly lit outside, on the inside of the training building you can't see, you can't hear and you don't know what is lying around the corner.

Your heart rate is on the rise as you wind around a smokey room with one or two flashlights leading the way. The comfort of my desk seems like a welcomed reprieve compared to this.

Another part of the work many people won't see firefighters do is high-angle rescues. While dark smokey confined spaces aren't my thing, I'm not afraid of heights.

Climbing up seven flights of stairs I make my way to the top of the training tower.

High angle rescue with St. John's Regional Fire Department

CBC News Newfoundland

3 years ago
Jeremy Eaton gets taken down a the side of a building 1:00

Wearing a harness and a helmet, I am attached to two ropes and led to the edge of the building. I climb over the rail and lean back.

In emergency situations, the high-angle rescue wouldn't be on a smooth wall like we were repelling down back on.

Trees, rocks and other elements could get in the way on actual rescues.

But as you make our way down the concrete wall, your back flat and your feet firmly on the side of the building it's an enjoyable way to end the day.

If this whole CBC thing doesn't work out for me — and if I can get that fear of confined spaces under control — I would be interested in a career change.