BEING a fire fighter is nothing like it is portrayed in the movies, as I found out the hard way this week.
It’s 7pm at Griffith Fire Station and a siren erupts, the men chatting casually around me begin to scurry.
With silent urgency and great efficiency they move, grabbing coats, helmets, gloves.
Flustered, I pull on my gear and run to the open door of the engine where, within a minute, the men are bundled inside and ready to go.
Red and blue lights flashing, the engine tears into the street, while inside the cabin the radio shouts reports of a house on fire with people trapped inside.
We arrive in the dim light of dusk to an old weatherboard home, smoke curling out of the windows and fly screens exploded onto the grass.
A hysterical man pounces as we pile out, screaming there are people trapped inside and we need to hurry.
We ignore him.
The fire fighters wrench open the roller doors on the side of the truck, unveiling neatly packed compartments of safety equipment, tools, extinguishers, hoses, breathing apparatus and more.
In my panic, everything looks the same, the men move confidently, grabbing what they need.
Lumbering in my heavy boots, padded trousers and jacket, I kneel as the men strap an oxygen tank to my back, pull a flame-proof hood over my hair and affix the claustrophobic breathing apparatus to my face.
With my helmet on, my head is heavy and sound is muffled, my movements restricted.
I clump after the men, who move effortlessly in their cumbersome gear, axe in hand, to the door of the house.
While people shout directives around me, I swing the axe and break through the door, pulling it away as smoke gushes out.
I grab the heavy hose in my gloved hands, drop to my knees and pull it into the blackness.
Inside, I am blind – my vision obscured by smoke – and the sound of my panicked breath sucking through my mask roars in my ears.
From my radio, the captain asks my location, my progress, the state of the fire.
I don’t know where I am.
I continue crawling further into the house with my partner guiding from behind, one hand in front of me as I crash into walls and cupboards, the other hand gripping my lifeline – the hose.
Shuffling along, unable to see more than 20 centimetres in front of us, we find a hallway, a bedroom and finally a bathroom, where orange light blazes.
Water unleashed, the hose kicks back and I fight to keep hold of it and aim.
Fire control interrogates over my radio and I try to free a hand to answer.
The fire out, my partner and I retreat on our knees to a bedroom.
There we find a body, unconscious, and I wrap my arms under his shoulders to drag him out of the building.
He’s heavy and I try not to trip. With my partner guiding me, we get the body to the resuscitation area where CPR begins.
I’m hot, exhausted and out of breath but, once my mask is off, I start CPR.
Then the drill is over.
For me, there was no fire and the bodies scattered through the smoke-filled house were merely stuffed dummies.
But the urgency, the adrenalin, the sense of responsibility were real.
This is something our fire fighters face on an almost daily basis.
They’re dragged from their beds in the early hours of the morning or pulled away from family functions to run into burning buildings, fighting every natural instinct that tells them not to.
Every one of them has a story to tell, and every one of them has selflessly saved property, homes and even lives.
Having done what they do – to a degree – I can honestly say our fire fighters truly are heroes.
Special thanks to Fire and Rescue NSW Inspector Kernin Lambert for organising the drill.