In Your Shoes: What's it like to be a firefighter?

Peter Zuzga
Capt. Matt Karpinski helps NOW reporter Danielle Switalski don her gear before participating in an exercise with the Germantown Fire Department last week. To get into the department, a person has to be able to gear up in two minutes or less; it took Switalski about 15 minutes with Karpinskiā€™s help.
Published on: 7/30/2013

"If only you could walk a mile in my shoes." We've all read it, thought it, and most likely said it, but how many of us have actually tried it?

Every day, each of us wakes up and tackles the day. Some of us head to an office and are inundated with phone call after phone call. Others don a uniform and ready themselves to help those in need.

Though it would be impossible for me to walk a mile in everyone's shoes, I am bringing the adage to life. From sweeping floors to farming, I am taking myself out of my comfort zone and being put to work like never before at businesses around Germantown and Menomonee Falls.

Germantown — Smoke was slowly billowing out of a storage shed in Fireman's Park as I knelt just outside of the door.

I had been waiting for this moment all day. My heart pounded and sweat dripped in my face. I hoped my deodorant would hold up. The heavy gear weighed me down so much that it felt like someone was standing on my shoulders.

That wasn't the first time I put on a full firefighter suit July 23. When I was first handed a pair of pants by Capt. Matt Karpinski of emergency medical services at the Germantown Fire Department earlier in the day, my only hope was to get them over my butt. No female wants to ask a man for a bigger pair of pants.

With a little shimmying, I was able to Velcro them shut. I was fitted with every piece of firefighter gear that afternoon. I had no idea there was so much to it.

Here's how it went: One leg into the pants and a boot, then the other. Put your coat on. Latch every hook. Velcro your jacket shut. Put a face mask around your neck and hang it like an oversized necklace. Put a black fire hood over your head, leaving it sit on your neck. Next, swing the air pack onto your back, latch it tightly around your torso. Shove and fasten a helmet onto your head. Pull the hood over your helmet. Put on the air mask. Make sure it suctions to your face. Lastly, put on gloves. Once it's all in place, turn the air tank on and connect the tube from the tank to the mask.

And, do it all in two minutes. If you don't, you fail and you can't be a firefighter. Putting gear on in two minutes is a requirement. I failed — by about 13 minutes.

Darth Vader issues?

The face mask didn't sit well with me. Something about wearing a machine to help breathe made me uneasy. Trust issues? Perhaps. Whatever it was it made me twitchy.

Karpinski had me try the gear on in preparation for the training exercise that night, which tested me in more ways than one. The exercise was simple enough. You go up stairs, over a picnic table and through a wooden tunnel in full firefighter gear and make it through the obstacles strategically placed to slow you down. You do this blinded by smoke, requiring you to crawl on your hands and knees.

The point of the exercise was to practice falling through a weak floor and getting tangled by debris. This can happen anytime firefighters have to go inside a burning building and they have to be prepared. The exercise was meant to simulate that. The firefighters have training every Tuesday so they are ready for any scenario.

The second time I put the gear on for training, it took 10 minutes, and Karpinski still had to help me. It had to be done correctly because this time I was going to enter a smoky building.

Even though I knew what to expect because I helped set up the training exercise, I was nervous.

As I slowly crawled into the building, the smoke was so thick I could barely see my hand in front of my face. The only thing that mattered was crawling blindly one knee at a time, up each stair and across the room.

Dreading the fall

As I slowly crept forward, I knew what was coming. I was going to fall and I didn't have a choice. I had to crawl forward.

I felt the floor bend beneath. I paused. Karpinski yelled to keep moving. There was a loud snap as my weight broke the plywood and I tumbled onto the padded floor. I rolled to my right. Karpinski landed on the floor after me. I twisted back to the crawl position and felt for a wall. The only way out was through a tunnel. I thought maybe I would be small enough to continue to crawl on my knees. It was impossible and I had to army crawl on my stomach. I've never army-crawled before in my life, much less through a small tunnel.

Halfway through the smoke-filled tunnel, irrational panic began to set in. "Is that sweat in my eye? What if the air tank breaks? Will they pull me out of the tunnel in time? My neck hurts, is this helmet going to break my neck? Am I going to die in here?"

I stopped mid-tunnel and thought back to what some of the firefighters told me earlier in the day, when I was not so subtly hiding my nerves about the training exercise.

"If you feel yourself beginning to panic, stop and take a deep breath. Just control your breathing." I did just that and started moving again.

Then, I hit the wires. They were lined tightly in the way. I tried to shimmy under them. Unless I could transfigure into a mouse, it was impossible.

In the past when I have found myself in unsettling situations, my instincts were not to fight or to flee. Rather, my instinct was to just sit. I go blank. For a few seconds in that tunnel, I just laid there and had no plans to move. Karpinski snapped me out of it, handing me a pair of wire cutters, shouting at me to use them. Wire cutters never really had much significance to me before last week. To a firefighter, wire cutters can save his or her life.

At last I was free. Free from the wire, free from the tunnel, free from the smoke and back outside. I wanted nothing more than to rip my face mask off, pound my chest and yell like a wild beast. I did none of this as everything at the fire department has a routine and stringent protocol, including taking off your gear.

I was actually grateful for the protocol because there were about 20 firefighters sitting on a hill watching me and waiting for their turn to go into the building. Seeing as I had a hard time just putting my gloves on, I didn't want to embarrass myself further. For me, the exercise was physically demanding, terrifying and well out of my comfort zone. For the firefighters, it can be a normal day. I emerged from that building with a great sense of respect.

Seeking more people

Fighting fires is just one part of their job at the Germantown Fire Department. The majority of the firefighters are also certified as emergency medical technicians. They respond to all emergency calls in the village. On top of it, many of the firefighters in Germantown have full-time jobs outside of the Fire Department and do it because they care. (The majority of the staff is either paid on-call or part-time.) Many said it's in their blood. No one else could save a life in Germantown if they didn't sign up to do it. For that reason, the fire department could use more personnel.

Before tackling the training exercise, I saw their life-saving techniques in action. The emergency calls ebb and flow. Some days there are a dozen, others one. There were five the morning I came to work there. Of course, I didn't get there until noon when calls coincidentally subsided. Still, we kept busy until a call came over at 6:30 p.m. for an elderly woman suffering from a seizure.

It was go time. We jumped into the ambulance and were off. I was in the second ambulance to arrive. I watched three EMTs provide initial medical care and transport the woman to the hospital. All of which was done with great care, teamwork and precision. I just tried to stay out of the way.

The men wore many hats that day. By the time I went home I was exhausted, but they continued to work and respond to calls throughout the night.

I didn't know what to expect going in the shoes of a Germantown firefighter. The rush to save a life made my rush to meet deadline seem trivial. The adrenaline of crawling through that building gave me a sense of accomplishment I haven't felt in a long time. Still, not everyone is cut out for the job, myself included, and it takes a unique individual to do what firefighters do every day.


· physically taxing

· people's lives are in your hands

· long hours

· must be ready to go at all times


· adrenaline rush

· different every day

· driving in fire trucks

· helping save lives