Six Minutes of Professional Courage
Author: Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Mark Staff Photography
My ladder company was ventilating on a flat roof of a three-story wood-framed structure, using 18-inch circular saws. As we were cutting the ventilation hole, we noticed the tar on the roof began bubbling under our feet, which meant the fire had run up the walls, and the underside of the roof was on fire. We were in trouble. We gathered up our tools and retreated to the safety of our aerial ladder. In our haste, one of the firefighters slipped on the bubbling tar, and his arm knocked the helmet off my head. No way was I going back to get it. Just as I got onto the aerial ladder to descend to safety, the entire roof ignited and was engulfed in flames. After the fire was extinguished, I found the remnants of my helmet in a burned out third floor apartment.”
I always knew my dad was a hero, but he just told me that story today. That near-disintegrated helmet, with the shield still intact, Station Number 4 emblazoned on it, hung in our garage for as long as I can remember. So, you could say that I have always had a soft spot for firefighters, the brave who run into a fire when everyone else is running out.
A few years ago, when Bluffton firefighter Randy Hunter walked into my public speaking classroom, I felt an immediate kinship. After the semester ended, we stayed in touch. And two years in a row, while walking the dog around the McCracken Schools campus on a Saturday morning, I stumbled upon the new recruit physical testing. Each time I thought, hmmm, I wonder if I could pass that test; that would be a good story. I should ask Randy if I can take it.
Alas, this year, Captain Randy Hunter, assistant training officer and public information officer for the Bluffton Township Fire District took me seriously. Suddenly, I had October 31 on my calendar as the day I was going to take the Bluffton Fire District’s physical test, the Personal Ability Course Evaluation (PACE). I’d be sharing my testing day with the one third of the district firefighters who are required to re-take and pass this test annually. No pressure there.
In addition to completing the application and a general knowledge test to meet the minimum requirements of the Bluffton Fire District, all candidates need a combination of strength and endurance. The Bluffton Fire District has determined that any individual can successfully compete for the position of firefighter recruit if his or her preparation is focused on the physical abilities of the PACE, which is a job-sampling task performance physical ability evaluation, consisting of seven stations—the result of a significant amount of research on the occupation of fire suppression. The tasks reasonably test the physical abilities of an individual as they apply to performing basic fire ground duties. No prior experience or knowledge as a firefighter is required to successfully complete the PACE. (Good news since I am pretty sure that knowledge is not hereditary.)
As if the PACE stations aren’t hard enough, the candidate also wears a fire helmet, fire gloves and a 50-pound weighted vest, which feels like 100 pounds at the end. The recruit has to successfully complete all the physical ability requirements in a specific sequence, without stopping, and in less than six minutes. Gulp.
Endurance and completion of all stations is the goal, but if you thought you could make up some time running from station to station, bad news. Running on the course is not allowed and will be declared as unsatisfactory. Candidates are monitored by at least one member of the fire department. Further, if you thought those members might provide a little boost of confidence, think again. Cheering and coaching are not permitted during the recruit PACE test. You either pass or fail. It all sounded very intimidating.
Since recruits are able to get advance instruction on the components of the course, and I was considered a “recruit,” I was fortunate to spend an afternoon with shift one at the Palmetto Bluff Station to understand the physical requirements of the test. This translated to me having the opportunity to completely psych myself out of ever being able to pass this test. Captain Hunter, Captain Allen Cramer, and firefighters Kevin King and Greg Linacre talked me through the stations, provided tips on technique, made me laugh, and told stories of recruits who didn’t quite cut it to make me feel more at ease. “I’ve seen guys pick up the sledgehammer, swing once, and say, ‘I’m done.’”
It was about 90 degrees in the sun that afternoon. I remember remarking, “Wow, it’s hot,” and the guys looking at me like I was crazy. Yep, fires are hot. Got it. Surely there must also be some etiquette training, because the firefighters didn’t call me an idiot, which is certainly what they were thinking.
The helmet, gloves, and weighted vest are a game-changer. But, that 50-pound vest is only half as heavy as all of the gear that the firefighters wear. Also important to note, there is no ladies’ version of the test. All firefighters are measured equally.
I went home the night of my practice session, and because I had never swung a sledgehammer before, much less for five minutes, I was convinced I had suffered a stroke and that was why my hands were shaking for hours.
On the morning of the PACE test, I was nervous to say the least. Ironically, I awoke to the tweeting of my smoke detector’s dead battery. I iced both knees, ate a protein bar, took a Motrin and headed to the Bluffton Fire District Headquarters, all the time wondering, have I bitten off more than I can chew?
I arrive to find Captain Hunter putting the finishing touches on the course, and C2’s photographer locked and loaded to capture the moments of my struggle. I muster my confidence and march over with my pencil and notebook, as if this were any other story. Captain Hunter suggests I watch the firefighters take the test first to get a real feel for it. Sure, that should help. That would be like them watching me write a story, and by osmosis becoming writers, but I oblige.
I am impressed. The first shift from the department had taken the test the day before and Hunter reveals that the fastest time on the course was 2:21 (that’s more than three minutes faster than the required course time), with four minutes being average. Today’s group is breezing through the course. Everyone has met their annual requirement so far—good news, since the Bluffton Fire District covers 246 square miles from the Hilton Head bridges to the Beaufort /Jasper county lines, to the Broad River bridges. The combined eight stations take 5,000 calls a year, many of them medical, which is why every Bluffton firefighter is also required to be a nationally registered EMT. The two go hand in hand, Hunter said. “That would be like going to McDonald’s and saying, I am only going to do drinks.” In addition to being pretty bad ass, Hunter is also funny as hell. I imagine a sense of humor is a job requirement.
As training officer for the department, Hunter leads the charge for the PACE testing, and he boils down the entire process—for recruits and current firefighters—to one idea: professional courage. “I want them to do it right. Every time. There are no shortcuts. Do it right. Every time.” For Hunter, the courage is in pointing out when his expectations are not met. And that was just the dose of reality I needed before I hit the course.
Helmet on. Gloves on. Weighted vest on. I’m ready to go.
“You warmed up? You ready to go?” asked firefighter Steve Arnold, incredulously. Um, do I not look ready? “Maybe you should take a short jog around the parking lot, you know, get warmed up,” he said.
So, I jog around the parking lot once, shake out my arms to symbolize my looseness, get in place at the first station, and I hear, “Are your gloves wet? Come here, come here, let’s get your gloves wet,” Anthony said. Now, I am beginning to think I am being punked in front of two dozen firefighters who already seem wary of me, my notebook, my editor, the photographer, and my husband and his GoPro. Why are we hosing off my gloves, I ask. “For grip, better grip.” And all this time I thought water was a lubricant, but I am going with it.
Anthony (whose best time on the PACE is sub-two minutes) gives me one last bit of advice, “It is all about technique,” which only makes my stomach flip-flop because, well, I don’t have any.
Station 1: Keiser Machine. The Keiser Machine will be positioned outside the starting line, facing the course. The candidate shall stand on the platform of the Keiser Machine with hammer in hand, in the ready position. The test will start when the candidate strikes the sled. The sled shall not be pushed, pulled or otherwise moved except by striking with the provided weighted hammer. The candidate must strike the sled continuously until the sled reaches the finishing position which will indicate the station is complete. The candidate will then be allowed to proceed 100 feet to the next station.
Courtney’s Station 1: I am standing with my feet about 12 inches apart, on a raised platform, with a 50-pound sled between my feet, and I have to swing a sledgehammer between my legs (probably more daunting for male recruits than female) and try to move the sled. This station is all about finding the sweet spot on the sled and listening for the perfect “tink.” If you hit it in the wrong spot, it barely moves. The hammer is heavy, the gloves are too big, and the helmet keeps sliding over my eyes. But I never stop swinging, hoping for some “tinks.” They don’t come as fast as I want, but the sled finally hits its mark.
Station 2: Hose Swap. Three fifty 50-foot sections of three-inch hose (in a straight roll) will be placed in a box that is 10 feet by five feet in dimension. The box will be located at a set of cones which marks the entrance to the hose swap station. A second box with three fifty 50-foot sections of three-inch hose will be located at a second set of cones, which marks the end of the hose swap station. The distance between box #1 and box #2 is 50 feet. The candidate shall swap the hose in box #1 with the hose in box #2. At the conclusion of this station, both boxes shall have three sections of hose in them. Once this is accomplished, the station will be declared complete and the candidate may proceed 50 feet to the next station.
Courtney’s Station 2. I am already winded. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. The sections of hose are heavy enough that I am not able to carry all three at a time. But, I had plotted a strategy in advance. Carry two, pick up two, carry one, pick up one. Moving slower than I wanted. Done.
Station 3: Hose Drag. The Candidate will drag 100 feet of weighted one-and-three-quarter-inch hose 50 feet. The nozzle will be placed at the beginning of the station, facing the remaining course and adjacent to the first station coupling. The participant shall grasp the nozzle and drag the adjacent coupling past the water source mark 50 feet. When completed, the candidate may proceed to the next station.
Courtney’s Station 3: I didn’t get to practice this one, so I had no understanding of how heavy a hose full of water can be. And it only gets heavier the further you go, because you are carrying more hose. This is all about getting low in my stance, pulling the hose over my shoulder far enough that I can hold the nozzle just below my waist and move. At about 25 feet, I feel the weight change and snap me back a little, but because I am low, I am able to maintain my balance and forge ahead. Can’t catch my breath.
Station 4: Over and Under. The candidate will approach two 32-inch high obstacles that will be spaced eight feet apart. Candidate will go over the first obstacle and under the second obstacle. After completion, the candidate may proceed 20 feet to the next station.
Courtney’s Station 4: What sounds so simple actually isn’t. Thirty-two-inch high obstacles are just high enough that my legs aren’t long enough to just swing over. So I teeter for a second before my foot hits the ground on the other side. Getting down to go under is easy. Standing back up, 50 pounds heavier than usual, is a surprise.
Station 5: Rope Pull. The candidate will stand or sit in a five-foot by five-foot area marked on the testing field. The candidate will then pull a rope attached to a weighted pull sled 50 feet in to the box in which the participant is located. The candidate will not leave the designated box until the weighted pull sled has entered the box. After completion, the candidate may proceed 10 feet to the next station.
Courtney’s Station 5: Now I am tired, and I know that the two hardest stations are looming. I watched some of the firefighters at this station before me, and they did a simple hand-over-hand pull. I am not confident that I am strong enough to pull with just one arm at a time, so I opt for a two-handed pull and struggle with what to do with the slack rope each time I pull it in. Fifty feet is long when you are short on technique, and it is heavy. So, I am also emitting a scream- groan-like sound, which upon reflection is pretty embarrassing, but I get the sled across the line and I move on.
Station 6: Hose Coupling. Two sections of three-inch hose will be placed side-by-side and the candidate must connect the hoses together by the couplings before proceeding to the next station. Once the testing attendant confirms the hose is fully coupled, the candidate may proceed 10 feet to the next station.
Courtney’s Station 6: Connect a hose. How hard can that be? Ever connect a hose while hyperventilating and with hands that are shaking from slamming a sledgehammer and pulling a sled?
Station 7: Victim Drag. A rescue mannequin, weighing approximately 165 pounds will be placed 10 feet from the cones of the last station. The candidate will grasp and drag the mannequin 50 feet and pass through the last set of cones. Once the candidate and the mannequin totally pass through the last set of cones, the course will have been completed.
Courtney’s Station 7: Thanks to CrossFit, I know I can lift 165 pounds. I also know that when I typically lift that weight, I drop it immediately, because barbells don’t generally have to be carried to safety. In this instance, I have to lift “him” and drag him 50 feet: me, plus a 50 pound vest, plus a 165 pound guy who wasn’t going to offer any assistance. (Whose legs were duct taped together, but I was assured that the Bluffton FD does not bind every victim before rescue.) He is broad chested, so I know I can’t lock my hands together; I don’t have the wing span. I basically deadlift him, hold on for dear life, and start to walk.
Backwards. I know my grip is wrong with my first step, and he is already slipping. I drop him at 25 feet, and the idea of having to pick him up again is daunting. Every muscle aches, tears are welling, and oh, did I mention that during this entire course, Anthony is screaming in my ear like I am a new recruit at Parris Island (apparently the no “cheering” for recruits policy doesn’t apply to members of the media). “Pick him up. Pick him up.”
My feet cross the line, along with Mr. Mannequin. I drop him in relief with tears stinging in the corner of my eyes. “You’re not there. Pick him up. Pick him up. Don’t stop.” Those godforsaken duct-taped feet didn’t make it across the line, and I am not done yet. “Pick him up. Don’t stop. Pick him up.” I’ve already picked him up twice, which is the hardest part. I don’t know how I can muster the strength, but there is no way I am going to let this guy screaming in my ear get the best of me. I am going to finish. I am going to do this right.
He’s up. He’s over.
I look to Hunter for my time. His face says it all. “17 seconds.” I miss the six-minute mark by 17 seconds.
As I catch my breath (relieved that I have 20 nationally registered EMTs standing by, just in case I hit the deck), I hear Battalion Chief Vernon Edenfield say this about new recruits, “My only question is, are they going to quit. We die in pairs, because you never leave someone alone. So, my question is, if we’re at a fire, and the roof falls in on me, is he going to quit?”
In 2014, 272 people turned in applications to be Bluffton Firefighters. Of those 272, only 78 showed up for testing. The 78 did the PACE, and 12 failed. Sixty-six people were invited to take the written exam the following day, and 16 failed that. So, of the 50 people eligible, 12 were hired, and they start on the job January 7. And then the process starts all over again. February 15, 2015 at 5 p.m. is the deadline for next year’s hiring cycle.
What does it take? Professional courage.