Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 9, 2021

Firefighters train to avoid worst-case scenarios

Captain Amanda Horner of the Chattanooga Fire Department squeezes through a small gap during survival training at the site of the former Hamilton County jail last week. - Photo by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Sixteen years ago, firefighter Amanda Horner found herself trailing a fellow rookie through a blistering brick duplex in search of flames. As they navigated the dark labyrinth, her energy, as well as her air, dwindled.

By the time Horner and her companion found the conflagration, they were exhausted. But, being new to the job, they were more focused on dousing the flames than protecting their skin.

“We wanted to go, go, go, get it, get it, get it,” Horner recalls.

Horner, who’s now a captain with Station 13 of the Chattanooga Fire Department, has had more close calls since then and is wiser for each experience. But part of her still wants to “get it” when she pulls up to a fire.

“That never leaves you,” she admits.

To ensure its firefighters have the skills they need to not only enter a burning building but also walk out of it, the Chattanooga Fire Department this month conducted a series of International Association of Fire Fighters training sessions at its facility on Amnicola Highway and the former Hamilton County jail.

Central to the training was a trailer of props that served as obstacles firefighters navigated during intense timed sessions.

Horner nearly ran out of time – and air – during the final day of training while navigating a course made up of debris, gaps in plywood and a long tangle of wire.

Drawing on techniques she’d learned during previous training sessions, Horner squeezed her thin frame, her firefighter’s suit and her gear through two small gaps in plywood, looking a little like Houdini squirming his way out of a deadly trap.

“I did get hung up at one point,” she says about the second gap, which was smaller than the first. “My pack likes to slip around me, no matter how much I tighten it, so I had to calm down and remember where it needed to be.”

After leaving the pair of bottlenecks behind, Horner confronted her biggest fear as a firefighter as she wormed her way through a steel tunnel webbed with thin metal wires.

“One of my biggest fears is entrapment, or being hung up,” she confesses. “I always pray I can remain calm enough to get out.”

While passing through the shaft, Horner frequently stopped to slowly disentangle herself from a knot of wire. As she inched her way to the end, a shrill beeping noise emanating from her suit gradually slowed, indicating she was running out of air.

This is where the mental skills Horner was exercising became more important than the physical skills she’d learned, she says.

“These drills teach us to take a moment and calm down before we run out of air,” Horner explains. “Whenever I became hung up, I would stop to identify where I was caught instead of just muscling through and wasting air.

“It was close. If there had been 10 more feet to the end, I would have run out of air.”

Horner and her fellow firefighters also learned how to self-rescue through an upper floor window, read smoke and better understand building construction and heat release, all in an effort to improve their ability to protect themselves and other firefighters.

Most importantly, Horner says, she and her fellow firefighters learned to recognize when they need to issue a mayday. “We learned to stop thinking we don’t need help,” she notes. “That’s important because we need each other to get through things.”

The CFD purchased the trailer, as well as the IAFF training program, with $77,000 in funds it secured through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. The department worked with the Chattanooga Fire Fighters Association to apply for the grant.

CFD public information officer Lindsey Rogers says the training was essential to teaching the department’s firefighters how to respond when they’re lost, disoriented, low on air, trapped, injured or experiencing a mask malfunction.

“Our firefighters will not only be more aware of fire conditions but will also be better prepared to respond to situations in which they’re fighting for survival,” Rogers says.

The 30 regional firefighters who took part in the training are instructors at their stations. These instructors will now train their members using the trailer and props, ensuring consistent training to more than 2,000 firefighters in the Greater Chattanooga area.

In addition to training its own firefighters, the CFD also hosted firefighters from Soddy Daisy, Cleveland, East Ridge, Oak Ridge, Catoosa County, Dalton and Bradley County.

Horner says she feels better prepared – both mentally and physically – for her next fire.

“We’ve had a lot of near misses, but this program taught us how to avoid them, as well as how to self-rescue when they do happen,” she says. “Every situation you go into is different, but they’re all dangerous.”