It Ain't Easy Being a Hero

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Matthew Hannen
  • Torch Magazine
Objective: Confined space, high angle, auto extrication.


Don't the instructors at the Louis F. Garland Department of Defense Fire Training Academy at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, realize that I just survived a military working dog attack, not to mention jumping out of an aircraft at 11,000 feet near the Rocky Mountains?

But before I got too cocky, I decided I better find out more about this new challenge.

"What is a confined high, uh, extraction?" I asked with a yawn.

"That's confined space, high angle, auto extrication," said Tech Sgt. Jason Berry, an advanced rescue instructor.

He explained that the challenge is to go through a dark two-story maze wearing a bulky air tank, mask, fire suit, rescue helmet, boots and assorted other protective equipment. The maze is nearly 120 feet long and roughly 3 feet by 3 feet (smaller in some areas), simulating an air conditioning ventilation system. The objective is to bring out a 110-pound dummy at the end of the maze before you run out of air. The instructors give you about 30 minutes of air, but if you breathe too fast it might only last 15 minutes. When your air gets down to about a quarter of a tank, an ear-piercing alarm sounds to warn you.

"Hmmmm," I thought. I grew up in darkrooms processing film, so the dark shouldn't bother me. I'm skinny and have never shown any signs of claustrophobia, so the small space shouldn't bother me either. But I didn't know what to make of that whole "you might run out of air" thing.

I shrugged my shoulders and confidently thought, "Let's do this!"

 When I donned all my gear, I already felt "confined." That should have been a warning to me, but I plodded on carefree.

Then I entered the elongated coffin they called a ventilation shaft.

"So, this is what claustrophobia feels like," I thought. With the air tank on my back, it made it difficult to negotiate tight areas that were divided by structural pipes. I had to wiggle like a worm to get through all the twists and turns and elevated climbs. I had to fight back panic a couple of times when I felt stuck.

Despite a few intense moments of doubt, I reached the dummy in fairly good spirits. But that was only the first 120 feet. I now had to drag the human-shaped sandbag back through the mock air vent.

My rescue was going well at first, but then I came to an elevated section with stairs. With me pulling and gravity tugging, I labored to drag the dummy up the steps. By the time I got to the top, I was exhausted and breathing as hard as if I'd just finished a cross country race.

The problem was I still had a long way to go before I could log my first "save."

I inched along with my victim in tow. Weary to the bone, I wanted to quit. But vanity drove me. I didn't want to be humiliated by not finishing.

Gasping for air, I heard Berry holler, "Slow your breathing down!"

"So this is what it feels like to hyperventilate," I thought.

Nevertheless, I tried to slow down my breathing and take deeper breaths.

It worked for a short time, but the dummy seemed to be gaining weight. It felt like 400 pounds and wasn't budging.

Finally, Berry entered this coffin of shame to assist me. My arms still burned with every pull. Berry yelled at me and told me to get moving. Disoriented, I guided us to a dead end.

Suddenly, I envied the dummy and desperately wished it was I who was being pulled out.

I'd hit rock bottom and feared I was going to fail. Then the ear-piercing alarm went off on my tank, signaling that I was close to running out of air. I realized that if I ran out of air, I wouldn't be able to finish the rescue.

Adrenaline kicked in, and either I started moving faster or Berry started pushing harder. It didn't matter to me at this point. I just wanted out of this death trap.

When I finally reached the end, I pulled off my mask and plopped to the floor. I never felt so exhausted in my life. I couldn't move.

Humbled, I had to tip my hat to rescue crews who do this kind of thing for a living. As I discovered, it ain't easy being a hero.