When Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company fire engines arrived outside of the historic Green Mansion on Main Street for a search-and-rescue operation last week, it was members of city council donning the gear.
“Coming from a military background, you think you understand what the firefighter goes through. I can tell you I have a much greater respect for what the firefighters do,” Mayor Jerry Clifton said. “You put on 80 pounds of equipment, enter a building with a hose, and it’s not as easy as it looks.”
The search-and-rescue simulation was part of a larger demonstration that allowed Clifton along with council members Jen Wallace, Stu Markham, James Horning Jr. and Jason Lawhorn to learn first-hand what it takes when the volunteers respond to a call.
The evening started with an overview of the department and its operations. After the presentation, the attendees used hydraulic rescue tools to simulate a vehicle extraction.
Aetna ramped up the demonstration by having the officials wear full gear and a self-contained breathing apparatus to breach the Green Mansion with a charged hose line, simulating a search for trapped victims.
“We are lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers who are willing to keep us safe. It certainly is a difficult job and I think we can all recognize that, but once you actually have the hands-on opportunity to try on the equipment and get to use some of the equipment, it does bring it on home just how much of a commitment that these volunteers have to our community,” Wallace said.
While Wallace noted that it was fun, she said that it further articulated the seriousness of what the volunteer firefighters do.
“It is a physically demanding job and I think that the experience helps me learn just how much of an emotionally charged job it is, as well,” she said. “We were able to realize a fuller picture of what it takes to volunteer yourself in this capacity. As elected officials, we’re volunteers as well. It’s a lot easier to be up on the dais answering questions than to rush into a burning building.”
Clifton noted that, during the class portion, Aetna representatives went over the number of calls and responses, and shared body camera footage that gave a visual of what firefighters actually experience.
A full-time, paid fire department would cost the city $10 million or more, Clifton said. Aetna, he noted, does its work for about $4.5 million.
“That, to me, is just amazing that they can keep the doors open for less than half of what it would take to have a full-time fire department,” he said.
For Wallace, who said she already had a high regard for firefighters – she recalled Sunday dinners as a child, none of which passed without her uncle taking off at the sound of a fire whistle – it also helped her recognize the behind-the-scenes work that is necessary for the department to continue functioning.
“On one hand, it’s critical for us as elected officials to really understand the function of our volunteer fire service. They’re one of our first-line defenses for disasters in our city,” she said. “But I think it’s larger than that. It’s about being a community and interacting with other organizations that are outside of the official government. Nonprofits that make up our community and civic associations – we’re all in this together. The more that our elected officials can get out there and have those experiences, the better able we are to represent the community.”
Clifton agreed with that sentiment, noting that he wished the community at large could experience what council experienced.
“It really just gives you a new perspective and certainly a much greater appreciation for what our local heroes do on a daily basis,” he said, adding, “I slept well that night. It was really draining, but it was an experience I wouldn’t change for anything.”