The Herald Banner, Greenville, TX

July 29, 2013

In appreciation of all firefighters


— Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that if there was a fire in a building, I’d be running inside it, not out of it. It turns out that at the Fire Ops 101 training at the Collin County Community College last Saturday, I was given the unique and, I might add, terrifying opportunity to do just that.

The Friday before the class, I went down to Greenville Fire Station 3 to get fitted for all my fire gear. Since I was a late entry, and because I only weigh around 170 soaking wet, the uniform I received was pretty baggy on me. But I felt confident that it would do its job and do it well. As long as I don’t get burned, I thought.

The 6 a.m. wake up call on a Saturday didn’t even have me feeling groggy in the least. I was nervous, but it was a nervous excitement more than anxiety that kept me wide awake. I had no idea what to expect during the training, and as I pulled up to the training building, also known as The Burn Building, my heart began to race. It was modeled like an apartment building, except that it was completely indestructible, a fact I found out later on during the training exercises.

Once everyone arrived, we were split into color-coordianted groups. I was part of the blue group, composed of just three other people plus one of the fireman acting as team leader. After a quick synopsis of what to expect and a run-through of the Burn Building, the fire instructors sent us off to our exercise sessions.

Our team leader, Jake Papageorgiou of the Greenville Fire Department, led us to the Burn Building after we put on all our uniforms and gear.

It turns out we were one of the first groups to experience the search-and-rescue drill. For the drill, a hay fire would burn inside the building, and mannequins (the victims) would be placed somewhere inside the building. Our team would have to crawl through the smokey building and rescue the “victims.”

We put on our gas masks and oxygen tanks, and headed inside, me taking up the rear with a tool similar to a large fire poker in hand.

Now why would I need something like that? Because unlike on television, you can’t see a thing inside a burning building.

That tool is one of the ways you can tell how wide a hallway you’re in, by extending it out to the left and keeping the wall to your right. If it sounds easy, it was anything but.

The smoke was so black, we had to literally crawl blind through the building, with the instructors of course right beside us to help us out. Thank goodness for that!

With my right hand on the foot of my teammate, and my left hand feeling with the tool for walls, it didn’t take long for me to start breathing heavily.

It was unlike anything I have ever experienced, exhilarating and frightening at the same time. Once we finished the drill and I got all my gear off, I was sweating like I had just run a marathon. And we were only in there for maybe 10 minutes!

Other exercises had us learn about ventilation, the water hoses, and paramedical procedures, all of which were so full of educational information that if I attempted to put it all in here, you would be reading a book instead of a column.

We also got the chance to fight an actual fire, which again took place inside The Burn Building. This time, we followed a hose all the way to the fire room. The smoke literally made the building pitch black.

I don’t know how the brave firemen of the Greenville Fire Department can even see the fire, much less fight it. They told us that the majority of the time, the smoke literally makes it impossible to see two feet in front of you.

While I had a blast at the training, I definitely went home with the feeling that I could never be a firefighter.

But of all the education I received that Saturday, the thing that really stuck with me was my great appreciation for what the men at the Greenville Fire Department and fire departments everywhere do for our communities. Having experienced the things they go through firsthand, I have much greater respect for them, and I think I speak for all when I express my tremendous gratitude for their service.

Austin Wells is a reporter for the Rockwall Herald-Banner and Royse City Herald-Banner. He can be reached via email at