If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Firehouse
Recently, I completed drills with the men of Munhall Volunteer Fire Co. No. 4. By "completed," I mean participated. By "participated," I mean I was there.
Illustration by Patrick Neil
"Virginia, you’re up."
Standing in full firefighting gear on a day when the temperature in Pittsburgh reached 93 degrees, I blinked a drop of sweat out of my eyes and glanced over at the men of Munhall Volunteer Fire Co. No. 4, who were preparing to cut a square section out of the roof of an old car that now rested on its side.
I reluctantly approached the beat-up Toyota and reached for the drill-like tool. I listened as I was instructed on how to use the special bit to cut a line along the car’s roof—a line that, once connected to others, would allow the firemen to peel the roof away to retrieve our “victim.”
“Are you sure? I’m not very good with tools,” I said.
After receiving an unreadable look from the fire chief, I powered up the tool and cut along the white line that had been drawn to guide my path—one, I hoped, that wouldn’t intersect with a tender human head.
Later, I stood with every stitch of clothing drenched so thoroughly with sweat that I felt as if I had put them on right out of the washer. Hip to hip with another firefighter, grasping the incredibly heavy Jaws of Life, I used all of my body weight to shove the loud machine farther into the door hinge and pop it open. With my eyes and muscles burning, my ears ringing, and my body wondering if it had gone to hell, a thought entered my head: When do we slide down the pole?
You see, when I was approached by the station to participate in “drills,” I thought, OK, this will be fun. Put on a cute hat. Make a cute face. Slide down a pole. Possibly land in a heap on my rump. Maybe adorably affect a Bridget Jones accent. Stand on the fire truck and shout, ‘Woo-wee! Woo-wee!’ Hold the big hose and pretend I’m spraying water. Pet the spotted dog. I’m in.
I don’t know at what point all of that turned into my body entering its own self-contained furnace, but I didn’t make one cute little face during those three grueling hours, and any thought of appearing adorable disappeared when the last drop of my makeup melted off my face like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
“Drills” meant climbing into a 30-pound firefighting suit and a helmet so heavy that if I accidentally tilted my head down even the slightest notch, the weight of it would snap my neck down like a broken bobblehead. It meant joining the men on the fire truck and shuttling out to a field where the beat-up car waited to be taken apart completely.
“Drills” turned into one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.
I was perhaps the most shocked when I met the chief of five years, and he turned out to be a tall, strapping 28-year-old who commanded respect and oozed authority. One look from him, and I felt as though the principal was thinking about giving me detention—not that he was rude or even abrasive. There’s just something about knowing he’s in charge that makes you spit out your gum and shut up and listen.
I listened as the chief turned into a teacher, asking the men what they would do first if they were to approach a car in the position of the one they were currently viewing. I listened as the men answered, and then, as they turned into teachers, they began to eagerly instruct me on how to stabilize a wrecked vehicle.
I marveled at how I seemed to be sweating more than any of them were and that not a one complained about the heat, even though you could cook a chicken in the pants I was wearing. I wouldn’t do this job for $1 million, and here they all were, standing in the heat for hours, learning all of the ways to remove victims from wrecked cars and timing themselves as they attempted to remove a car door in under two minutes. And they do it for free.
It was about 10 o’clock at night when I was watching the men clean up, and I thought to myself that being this hot, this sweaty, this miserable—well, it makes me want to be as far away as possible from any heat source.
I wouldn’t even make toast wearing this suit, but these men will walk into a fire on the hottest day of the year if that’s what they’re asked to do, and they won’t be paid a dime to do it.
That’s when I realized I had just spent three hours with a group of true local heroes and that there are many like them all over southwestern Pennsylvania.
Would I do it again? Not on your life.
But if you live in Munhall, your life is in really good hands.