Four politicians walk into a burning house and
Sounds like the start of a variation of a lawyer joke, doesn't it? But except for the occasional playful jibe during preparatory briefings, the fire-training session at an old house off Monroe Street in Sylvania yesterday morning was no laughing matter.
Two Sylvania Township trustees and two Sylvania City Council members took turns Tuesday morning accompanying firefighters into one of two vacant houses along Ten Mile Creek that the Sylvania Township Fire Department is using for training before the site is cleared to become city parkland.
The "Feel the Heat" program, Deputy Chief Jeff Kowalski said, is intended "to give the elected officials a taste of what it's like, what our job entails, and why we need certain equipment and personnel to fight fires."
The carefully constructed pyres of straw, wooden pallets, and a purpose-specific burning material don't burn as hot as a real house fire would, nor do they contain plastics and foams commonly found in cushioned furniture that produce oily black smoke when burning.
"But it'll be warm enough that they'll get a taste of what it's like fighting a fire," Chief Kowalski said.
Township trustee DeeDee Liedel, who went in first, was suitably impressed with the experience.
"It was hot, there was smoke, my mask seemed to fog up - it was very disorienting," Mrs. Lie-del said shortly after leaving the house. "But it was a wonderful experience to see what they go in and face," she continued, adding that in a real fire, firefighters don't get to know in advance what is burning and what obstacles they might face inside smoky rooms.
Mrs. Liedel and the fire department have a contentious past. She and trustee Pam Hanley, who did not attend yesterday's event, cast the two majority votes in a township resolution two years ago opposing a 1.5-mill levy for the fire department that passed in the city but failed in the township.
She also has sparred with the firefighters' union about its contract proposals.
But if resentments linger from that history, they were carefully shrouded yesterday, and Mrs. Liedel said her positions on the levy and firefighters' compensation were motivated by a desire to control spending.
"I have always respected the job our fire crews do on behalf of our community," she said. "I want to ensure we have efficient, effective government so we can continue to provide these services in an affordable manner."
City Councilman V. Michael Brown, who had headed a citizens' group in support of the failed 2007 levy, also participated in the event yesterday and said it is something everyone holding purse strings for police or firefighters should do.
"It was disorienting, and hot. You just want to put the fire out and get out," Mr. Brown said, voicing particular surprise at how quickly the air in his breathing tank heated up once he got near the fire.
Chief Kowalski said that although the fire department has done "Feel the Heat" exercises for public officials before, those were at the department's training center and involved car fires, use of aerial ladder trucks, and low-visibility search and rescue.
Yesterday's was the first burning-building exercise for elected leaders, he said, and it was set up with safety in mind: Not only were the officials accompanied by a fire instructor and another firefighting veteran, but a sprinkler system donated by Premier Fire Protection was installed should the practice fires get out of hand, and two safety officers were present as well.
Of the four participants, only township trustee Carol Contrada had participated in one of the prior exercises, but this was her first experience with live flame.
"It was both thrilling and scary at the same time - actually walking into flames, having flames all around me. That was quite remarkable," Mrs. Contrada said. "And it's hard to keep walking forward, like they tell you to do, when your normal response would be to go the other way."
City Councilman Katie Cappellini, however, was enthusiastic enough about her first trip into a burning house that she accepted an offer from the fire department to go in for a second time.
"What surprised me the most is how heavy all this stuff is," she said in between sorties, referring to the heavy turnout gear she and the other participants donned. "Just getting up the stairs with all this gear on" is difficult, she said, and even though it's well insulated, "even with that jacket on the sweat just drips from you."
But she also called the experience "really intense" and found herself trying to imagine what a "real" fire might be like - especially if it were a rescue situation as well.
Chief Kowalski said Mrs. Hanley and other city council members were invited yesterday, but cited conflicts.
"We'll have another one for them" if there's interest, he said.
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