...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

My day as a firefighter

It's been an eventful week – I was called to the university on Wednesday to (informally) seal my employment, I exercised and met a couple of M.A. friends on Thursday and Friday, went to Kulturnatt events on Saturday night and went on a Sunday forest excursion earlier today.

It hadn't always been this hectic though. Before last week, I was sitting by my computer twiddling my thumbs, contemplating my joblessness and looking desperately for something to do when I saw an ad on the Norrköping city website. The fire department was organizing a course for women between 18 and 30 for them to see how it's like to be a fireman for a day. And, well, partly because I was really itching for something to do but mostly because I thought it was a rare opportunity too exciting to pass, I rang them.

As the song goes, the fireman is a person in your neighborhood– me (yesterday at least)!

We were 17 girls who turned up for the one-day course yesterday morning. Most were senior high school students considering a job in this male-dominated line of work. The city fire department was trying to encourage equal participation of women and men in the profession, and to this direction there was nothing more encouraging than the fact that their Big Boss and their fire engineer were ladies. The firemen themselves – there's only one lady fireman in the whole city – weren't so bad either. They seemed so laid back and so refreshingly lacking in the machismo you usually come to expect in people working in "manly" jobs.

After an hour's lecture in the morning, we were divided into groups and worked in stations doing different activities. Among other things, I learned how to use a fire blanket on a burning dummy, which is how you kill flames on burning persons; I learned the differences between different kinds of fire extinguishers (foam, carbonic acid and powder), when it's best to use them and how to use them; we climbed 30 meters up a fire truck ladder, which wasn't as scary as I first thought; we learned a little first aid; and we even had to do a timed activity around an obstacle course carrying water-filled jugs, a 70-kilo dummy and fire hoses. Damn, those fire hoses were heavy!

Here we were 30 meters off the ground. Below us, the other members of our group were starting on the obstacle course rolling out fire hoses.

To work as a firefighter then, I guess you really need to get over hesitations for doing hard work and overcome your fear of fire, heights, heat, and enclosed spaces. The best part of yesterday's course were exactly those challenges that made us take that extra step beyond the limits of our comfort zones. For example, as one of the simpler tasks, we had to get really close to the source of a wall-high fire to be able to use the extinguisher on it. Now I can at least say that I've been there, done that, and managed to keep all my skin intact. Good.

The two best activities were the ones we did in pitch darkness. One of them was a group activity designed to test teamwork and problem-solving skills in enclosed spaces. My group of four girls were locked inside a 4-story caged labyrinth with walls so narrow and low that the only way around was to crawl. The four of us in a group had to hold together using a line and find our way to the exit armed with a flashlight in the darkness. Actually, despite sounding like the claustrophobe's nightmare, it was probably the most enjoyable thing we did the whole day. Louice, the girl who took the leadership role in the labyrinth, did a really good job of pepping us up and we came out as the fastest group out of the maze after 13 minutes. We were literally scrambling our way out the exit giggling.

Besides, the caged labyrinth wasn't even half as scary or mentally demanding as the other activity we did in the dark, which was rökdykning, literally "smoke diving". This involved searching for two dummies – an adult and a child – in a smoke-filled building, getting the child out of the building and reporting where the adult lay. The catch? The air temperature in the building is 100 degrees C, the air in your 11-kilo breathing apparatus is limited to 20 minutes, we have only one flashlight and we could hardly even see where we were going in the thick smoke, much less make out the outlines of the rooms to identify things like door openings. We pretty much had to walk with our arms in front of us to avoid bumping into walls. Finding the dummies also seemed to be the easier part; retracing our steps in the darkness was more challenging especially since I already had the heavy doll in my arms and only one hand to use to feel myself around. We were also tasked to exit the building through another marked exit in the first floor – and by that time, you bet I was already sweating in my suit.

My group getting into the overalls and breathing apparatus before smoke diving

I didn't take pictures of the rökdykning – I was too afraid that the pocket-sized camera I borrowed for this occasion would melt if I even took it in the room – but I did take pictures of the next activity we did, which was to operate a fire hose to kill a flame coming above you from the ceiling. That's another girl, Emelie, at work in the picture below. And yes, I got permission to take photos. They were cool with that. We also weren't required to dress up as fast as real firemen: they have 90 seconds to get dressed and get the truck rolling from the second the alarm goes off.

This part was like being one of the Ghostbusters!

By the end of the day the fire department did succeed in making us see ourselves as women in the profession, and many have made up their minds to join. Heck, if it weren't for another two years of studying, and if it weren't for the fact that all the stations where you could work part-time were out in the furthest imaginable suburbs, I would have probably also enlisted in the 9-week course for part-time firefighters. But I could definitely see myself enlisting in single courses on fire safety and first aid in the future – it's always good to know.

At any case, I've never done anything so exciting and so different in my life. I would never have tried a firefighter's life otherwise, and I definitely do not regret that I ever did. You really gain respect for the people who work there, get to feel that you're a part of a community that cares for your safety, and get a good weekend adventure as a bonus. Now I can stop envying Marcus for his Hemvärnet activities.

... But best of all, as icing to the cake and as proof that I was there, I was in today's local paper, Norrköpings Tidningar. Here are collated screen captures of the article and the pictures in which I figure (I'm in the foreground in the second picture), plus a translation of the original article below. It's my only claim to Swedish media fame! Heheh!

[Caption] Joy Guerrero and Therese Kindblom are satisfied with the smoke diving. They are pictured here together with instructor Anders Roxström.

Girls were firemen for a day

Too few women working within fire protection. Hoping to change this, 17 girls were invited to the Fire Service's instruction center.

There is only one woman fireman in Norrköping. The Fire Service wants to change this. On Saturday, women between 18-30 were invited to give it a try. Among other things, they got to extinguish fires and try their hand working as smoke divers. One of the girls who got to experience the heat in full gear was Joy Guerrero.

"It was a bit scary, it was dark and hard to see. We were tasked to look for two dummies and take them out of there," she says.

Thomas Hagman who is in charge of the service at the instruction center was positive about the girls' jobs.

"They're doing a really good job and we need more, of course. There's just one woman who works here," he says.

Lisa Westerberg wants to challenge herself and thinks that this career fits her well. She will apply for a job as a firefighter.

"I like to get moving and I have been interested in this for a long time. It is absolutely something for me, it's pretty cool," she says.

External links:
Swedish Rescue Services Agency (Räddningsverket)
Norrköping Fire Service (Brandförsvaret)


Anonymous lara said...

bra gjort, joy! :D och grattis för ditt nytt jobb!!! yahoo! :D

i understand how happy you must feel to have finally landed one. what will your assignment be in the university?

p.s. our move is complete. the next move is to learn to be patient with the inredning :P

8:07 PM

Anonymous pj said...

woohoo! this looks like immense fun! scary fun! :D

2:43 AM

Blogger aka Cheryl said...

surreal - you were in the news!!! :D

and on a somewhat related note, jamie's fiance is a paramedic firefighter. :)

3:05 PM

Blogger Ahoy! said...

Hi you three!

Lara: I'm going to work on half a PhD ("licentiat"), which is a compromise since they want to hire me but don't have enough funding for all 4 years. The field is gerontology (study of old people), focusing on handicaps and the experience of aging. So that's two years more of studying... lipat na lang kaya ako to firefighting, no?

PJ: It's not that scary once you're there, even though I did feel scared just thinking about the activities we would do just before we did them. And then, I don't think things would be that easy in real life. In real smoke diving, they said the air temperature goes up to 200 C!

Cheryl: Inggit! I really think it could be a cool job. :-D I don't think I could stand the 24-hour shifts though, but maybe things aren't that bad once you're there?

6:17 PM

Blogger aka Cheryl said...

i'm not really sure but i think bryan goes for 16 hours straight but works only like 3 days. i'm also not sure if it's because he's also a paramedic instead of "just" firefighter.

1:58 PM

Anonymous Mats o Margareta said...

Har haft en jättetevlig läsning om dina äventyr hos brandförsvaret under en dag. Du är initiativrik och klok Vi gillar dig Margareta 0 Mats

2:19 PM


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