Every kid dreams about what they're going to become when they grow up. One of my dreams was to be a firefighter. One of my relatives was on the job in Chicago, and his firehouse was on a direct line between my home and that of my grandparents. So, nearly every time we visited my grandparents, we would first stop to see if Cousin Billy was on shift. It didn't really matter if he was; we stopped by so often that everyone assigned to the station knew us and allowed us to climb onto the apparatus, sit in the cabs and put on the helmets. The first time I walked into the station, I was smitten.

Alas, I learned a few years later that dreams don't always come true. No one in my family had ever gone to college, and my mother insisted that I be the first. I grew up in a time when children respected, if not heeded, their parent's wishes. Mine saw college as a way to a better life, so off to school I went. Unfortunately, fire-service curricula were rare at the time, if they existed at all. So, I was forced to choose another line of work. The dream died hard, so much so that the desire still lurks within, like a faintly glowing ember.

It should come as no surprise then that I jumped at the chance a while back to participate in a one-day firefighter training program held at the University of Illinois' Fire Service Institute. Every year for the past nine years, Motorola has brought a group of its product designers, system engineers and marketing managers to the institute to experience firsthand — albeit in a controlled environment — what firefighters experience. The thinking is that experiencing what firefighters experience will result in products that work the way firefighters need them to work. I was invited to tag along.

Indeed, much was learned on that day, both by me and my fellow firefighters-for-a-day. For instance, I now know much more about Motorola, its people and how the company thinks about its products than I did before this exercise. I also have keener insight into the minds of fire chiefs, and what those minds think about when they are on the fireground. And I saw for myself why the fire service is leery about digital radios in their current state.

I also learned that the adage is true: one should be careful about one's wishes.

A prophet among us

The day started out gloomy with a steady rain falling. This was no shock to me, as I had driven the 160 miles from Chicago to Champaign, Ill., the night before through an unrelenting monsoon. It still was raining hard enough when the morning dawned that, for a brief moment, I wondered whether the event would be cancelled. Then it occurred to me what a silly notion that was; firefighters get wet all the time, and we'd be wearing turnout gear. Of course it wasn't going to be cancelled. I wrote off my momentary brain-cramp to fatigue, as I hadn't arrived at my hotel until 1 a.m.

We assembled in a classroom, all 40 of us. I happily and quickly signed a waiver that said something about potential death and dismemberment — I was this close to my dream, and nothing was going to stop me now, not even rational fear concerning what I was about to encounter.

Mark Krizik, a Motorola systems engineer and a lieutenant with the Posen (Ill.) Fire Department just south of Chicago, would lead the exercise. He was joined by his brother, Bryant, chief of the Orland Park (Ill.) Fire Department — boasting six stations that cover 37 square miles and protect a population of roughly 100,000 residents — as well as by other officers from suburban Chicago departments who would run us through the paces. Mark Krizik gave us an orientation on what we would be doing that day and offered some insights as to what we should expect. We were divided into teams that were led by one of the fire-department officers donating their time and expertise to this cause.

One by one, the teams went to the equipment building to pick up their gear, which consisted of a helmet, SCBA mask, turnout coat and work gloves — everything but the pants and boots. I tried very hard not to look like the kid who just found where his parents had stashed the family's Christmas presents. From there, we went to another building to grab our air tanks. Forty-five minutes later — after a tutorial and extensive practice on how to properly don the tank, read its gauges, connect it to the SCBA, uncouple it from its carrier, attach it to the compressor for re-filling and then reattach it to the carrier — we were ready to fight fire.

We were led to a building where a “blaze” had been created just for us. The instructor explained that what we were experiencing was “clean” smoke, because what was burning was wood and hay. He stressed that if this had been the real deal, say a house fire, the smoke would be black and acrid, which is what happens when carpeting, drapes and furniture burn, we were told. That struck a chord, because though the smoke was “clean,” I could barely see a thing, which would have been the case even if my mask hadn't fogged — which it did, almost immediately. My thoughts quickly turned to two childhood friends, both of whom are city of Chicago firefighters. They have told me many stories over the years, and have stressed how frightening it is when firefighters are in a burning structure, unable to see their hands in front of their faces and forced to find their way out of the structure solely by feel.

Now that we had some sense of what we were about to experience, it was time to turn us loose. Each of the eight, five-person teams would rotate through various scenarios designed to replicate the activities of a ladder truck, pumper and incident command. Our first rotation was on the ladder truck and our mission was to find two “victims” within the 3-story structure.

It was at this point that I discovered that Mark Krizik is something of a prophet. During the morning orientation, he had cautioned that slips and falls were the most common injury suffered by firefighters. Shortly thereafter, I nearly tumbled down a flight of concrete stairs. It was, dark, smoky and my SCBA mask was fogged, worse than before — I couldn't see a damned thing. So, in a feeble attempt to find the first step, I commenced something of a tap dance. Big mistake. My heel hit the top of the step and immediately slid off, which nearly catapulted me down the stairs. Fortunately for me and the other members of my team who I would have wiped out, I managed to somehow arrest my fall and hang onto the heavy halligan tool and flashlight I was carrying. (In that brief moment of panic, I uttered a rather colorful expression of my terror — which, thank goodness, was muffled by my mask.)

I began to think that my decision to go into journalism rather than firefighting might not have been such a bad idea after all.

The pucker factor

The day was filled with other 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. After each rotation, team members shared their observations. LanTing Garra, a Motorola product designer, was as unnerved as I was by the inability to see anything. “I've heard a lot of firefighter stories, but it's different when you put on the gear and do it yourself,” she said. “The fear that comes with not being able to see was an eye-opener.”

Of course, we were in a controlled environment with “clean” smoke. I have a vivid imagination, and I can't contemplate how terrifying it would be to be in a fire that's throwing off thick, acrid smoke. Bryant Krizik doesn't need to imagine. “Sometimes it's so black, the fire can be right above you and you don't know,” he said. “You can move your hand in front of your face and not see it.”

And I thought deadline pressure was tough

I overheard Tracy Kimbo, a Motorola marketing manager, tell one of her colleagues about the difficulties she encountered while wearing heavy gloves, something firefighters have to do often. “I had to take off my gloves in order to use the lapel mike,” she said. Like Garra, she called the experience an eye-opener. “Using the lapel microphone while wearing heavy gloves was much tougher to do than I had thought,” she said.

Later in the day, after Kimbo shared her observation with the rest of the team, Bryant Krizik then shared a story about a colleague in Atlanta who carried his radio inside his turnout coat in order to keep it dry. “That's typical,” he said. “Wet radios don't perform well.”

The story illustrated well the need for radios designed specifically for use by firefighters. According to Krizik, the Atlanta firefighter became trapped while fighting a blaze. He tried to hit his mayday button, but it was too small. He finally took his glove off with tragic consequences. His hand was so badly burned that several fingers had to be amputated, which ended his career.

While the Motorola people were gathering valuable bits of information such as this, I was filling my notebook with gems of wisdom from the fire-department officers who were leading and instructing each group, which gave me valuable insight into how they think about radio communications and what they think about when the battle is being waged.

What they mostly think about radio communications is that they don't want to have to think about them at all. Nor do they want those in their command to have to think about their radios, as there's just too much to deal with when on the fireground. Equipment must be grabbed, 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 for firefighters to fall through a floor, especially if it means landing in the basement where the blaze started — a common occurrence, we were told, as basements generally are where heat-generating devices such as furnaces and clothes dryers are located. Then there's also the weighty matter of knocking down the fire and rescuing victims.

“Everything with the radio has to be intuitive — there's just too much other stuff going on,” Mark Krizik said. “The radio is the last thing a firefighter wants to think about.”

Later, his brother Bryant — my team leader — offered an observation that surprised me a bit. Much has been written about the proposed nationwide broadband network for first responders that would operate on the 700 MHz frequencies abandoned earlier this year by commercial broadcasters. Such a network theoretically could be used to send, for instance, building floor plans and blueprints to commanders at an incident. In theory, that seems to make a lot of sense. What incident commander wouldn't want to have such information at his fingertips? More than one might expect, according to Bryant Krizik, who said that in the early stages of knocking down a fire, his attention is focused solely on the personnel who are in the structure and what they are encountering.

“We don't have the time to pull up a floor plan,” he said. “Generally, it's not until much later into the incident that we're able to access data.” However, Krizik added that any network that would support advanced data applications that would allow the location and physical condition of firefighters to be tracked — for instance, to prevent firefighters from succumbing to heat stroke — would be quite useful.

At one point, Bryant Krizik demonstrated the problems that digital radios have been having in very noisy environments. Voice intelligibility has been compromised in many instances, allegedly because the radios' vocoders are unable to distinguish between a firefighter's voice and the racket made by chain saws, fire truck engines and the like. (Earlier in the day, we were shown just how loud an engine can be when it's cranked up to provide the power needed to pump water.) Indeed, the self-contained breathing apparatus and the personal alert safety system both garbled Krizik's voice when he used a digital radio, and the PASS device hindered the transmission. That's a big problem, he said.

“When communications go south, we have to yell through our masks — and that doesn't work very well,” he said. “You can imagine the frustration a firefighter feels when a piece of equipment doesn't work.”

Then he offered a word of caution to the Motorola people — and for every other radio manufacturer. “That's what you're up against. Word spreads fast through a department, and trust gets lost pretty quickly.”

Indeed, there are real-life, potentially devastating consequences when radio communications fail. Bryant Krizik told a story about a large structure fire his department once battled. A firefighter wearing a mask couldn't be heard clearly enough. One chief thought he heard him say that the fire had broken through the floor on the second story. But another chief thought the firefighter said that the fire had broken out and was about to overrun the crew, so they needed a second line.

Not knowing what actually is happening is “when the pucker factor goes up for everybody,” Mark Krizik said.

When communications are unclear, incident commanders have little choice but to fill in the blanks, Mark Krizik said. Some will err on the side of a best-case scenario, while others will err based on the worst case, he said. In the former instance, firefighters might not get the resources and support they desperately need; in the latter, precious personnel and equipment might be allocated that are needed elsewhere.

“Both are bad,” Krizik said.

All in all, the experience truly was an eye-opener, for all of us.

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