I always wanted to be a firefighter. I didn't become one because I was born about 10 years too early. No one in my family ever had attended college, and my blue-collar parents believed that a college degree was the key that would open the door to a better life. They insisted that I be the first. Unfortunately, few — if any — colleges at the time offered fire service — oriented curricula. So, I became a journalist. But the dream still lingers within, like a faintly glowing ember.

Given that, it should come as no surprise that I jumped at the chance last week to participate in firefighter training at the University of Illinois. Each year, Motorola brings product managers, marketers and design engineers to the training facility. The belief is that product design shouldn't be conducted in an ivory tower; ergo, the opportunity to experience what firefighters experience, albeit in a controlled environment, will provide valuable insights that will help them to develop products that are more effective in the field.

That's quite important, said lead instructor Mark Krizik — a Motorola systems engineer who doubles as a lieutenant with the fire department in the Chicago suburb of Posen, Ill. — as there's just too much to deal with when on the fireground. Equipment must be donned, breathing gear must be working properly, instructions have to be understood and myriad hazards must be avoided — for instance, it's generally not a good idea to fall through a floor, especially if it means landing in the basement where the blaze started — a common occurrence, I was told, as basements generally are where heat-generating devices such as furnaces and clothes dryers are located. Then there's the weighty matter of knocking down the fire and rescuing victims.

"The radio is the last thing a firefighter wants to think about," Krizik said.

After an initial orientation, we were divided into teams and issued gear, including helmets, air tank and mask, turnout coat and gloves — everything but the pants and boots. Then we were put through the paces, replicating over several hours the duties of an engine company, a ladder company and incident command. After one of our rotations, I overheard one of my teammates, a Motorola marketing manager, tell a colleague, "I had to take off my gloves in order to use the lapel mike." She added that the experience was an eye-opener, as she discovered that using the lapel microphone while wearing heavy gloves was much tougher to do than she had thought.

The day was filled with other similar revelations. The Motorola people learned a great deal about the rigors of firefighting and how those rigors affect how firefighters use their products — what works and what doesn't. And I learned a little something about Motorola.

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