On a stormy evening in August, it was all about surviving. Twenty-four times per year, the Tecumseh Fire Department meets to train and prepare for the over 900 calls they receive each year. These trainings range from EMS to search and rescue to ice rescue. However, on this night, the training focused on very basic and very real skills that are needed of those who willingly run into burning buildings. On this night, it is about survival. On this night it is about staying alive.
"Years ago," explained Tecumseh Fire Chief Joe Tuckey, "after the Phoenix Fire Department lost a firefighter in a commercial structure, they set out to figure out what exactly it would take to rescue that one firefighter. What they determined," he said, "is that it takes twelve firefighters to go into a commercial structure to save one firefighter." This was due to the fact that the firefighter was so far in and conditions were so bad, that the teams going in to rescue the firefighter were getting into trouble. "So out of that came the big emphasis that we need to work on trying to save ourselves," said Tuckey. "So we now teach survival techniques to our firefighters."
While modern equipment has provided better fire protection for firefighters, it has also provided a catch 22 scenario —the added protection dulls firefighter's ability to feel danger. "Guys who have gone before us tell us that we are sending firefighters in too deep now, because they can't feel when the conditions change," said Tuckey. "When I started, we didn't wear all the gear we wear now. It used to be you could feel heat come down on your ears a little bit. Then you knew it was time to get out. We are so well-protected now that we don't feel it until it is too late."
As the firefighters first gather inside for instruction, Tuckey reminds them to be aware of this danger. He reminds them to maintain a 360-awareness of the fire conditions so they won't miss the signs that it is time to leave. "Watch your air," he reminds them. "Always be thinking, how much time do you need to get out."
He then speaks to a final aspect of survival — asking for help. "Analysis shows that firefighters often wait until it is too late to call for help," he says. "If you wait until it is too late and get too deep in, we can't get you out." They then go over the reasons to call a mayday. He reminds the group that calling a mayday doesn't mean that they are already in trouble, rather it means that they see how they might be in trouble. This is key as it gives everyone the opportunity to proactively help in preparing an escape. Finally, he says to them, "Nothing says you need a door to get out. If you need a door, make a door."
The men then file out and put on their full gear before gathering around a tall outdoor structure behind the fire department. This structure, paid for through fundraising and donations, allows the firefighters to train on every facet of firefighting, from ventilating roofs to search and rescue to survival training. The Tecumseh Fire Department employs sixteen firefighters —three full timers and thirteen paid-on-call firefighters. Not only does this team of sixteen show up for trainings and respond to calls, they also hold fundraisers so that they are able to purchase equipment that enables them to better serve the public. "When people donate to the department, this structure is an example of where that money goes," said Tuckey.
On this evening, the training is focused on techniques that could be used to quickly exit through an upper story window. The men take turns clipping onto a safety rope near a second story window. They learn how to slide down a fire hose as an escape route, wrapping their foot around the hose in a way that creates a controlled descent — a feat that is made much more difficult in their bulky suits. Even though they are clipped to a safety rope, a few still go down quickly and land hard, not fully expecting the extra pull of gravity from their nearly 70 pounds of gear. But these mistakes are welcomed here. Better to make them now, better to learn their errors while clipped to a safety rope. The men repeat the descent over and over so that in the case of a real escape, when there are no safety ropes, this will feel like second nature.
Next they practice a head first ladder bail. In this acrobatic maneuver they crawl head first out of the second story window, hook their arm around a ladder rung, and swing around before quickly sliding feet first down the ladder to the ground. It takes seconds, yet the descent knocks some hats to the ground, one firefighter is hit in the face with his gear. They all just laugh off the bumps and bruises and hard landings. Their lighthearted nature seems to belie what this training is actually about.
When asked what he would want the community to know about his firefighters, Chief Tuckey says nothing of the danger, rather, he speaks to the heart of his men. "What would I like the community to know about us?" he asks. "I guess I want them to know that these guys care a whole lot. They give a lot of time and a lot of themselves because they care. They want to serve and they work really hard to be the best. I guess that's what I'd want people to know, just how much we care."
The Tecumseh Fire Department Association holds two major fundraisers each year: their annual pancake breakfast and their annual calendar. Most recently, funds from these events went to purchase an off road vehicle that can be used to assist in the increased amount of water rescues along the River Raisin. This vehicle also allows firefighters to drive directly into Indian Trails to conduct rescues. "In the past, if someone was hurt on the trails, if someone broke an ankle, we had to walk in to get to them," said Chief Tuckey. "This vehicle allows us to quickly reach people to provide help."
If you are interested in making a donation to the Tecumseh Fire Department, checks can be made out to the Tecumseh Firefighters Foundation and mailed or delivered directly to the firehouse at 101 E. Russell Rd., Tecumseh. n