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I saved a baby from a burning building yesterday.

Well, it wasn't a burning building, it was a smoke-filled room. Fake smoke, that is. And the baby was really a yellow teddy bear.But it was still exciting. For two hours Tuesday, I wore protective fire gear and participated in simulations of events that firefighters must work in on a regular basis. The Provo Fire Department invited members of the media to become instant firefighters as part of National Fire Prevention Week, Oct. 8-14, in hopes that the experience will give them a better understanding of what firefighters go through at a fire or accident.

Saving the "baby" was one of those experiences. While most of the situation was contrived, I did crawl through a dark, smoky haze - wearing 80 pounds of clothing and gear, trying to breathe normally through a face mask and not panic, trying to see through the smoke and trying not to lose contact with the wall on my right and the firefighter behind me. It was scary.

Firefighters continually practice finding their way around a building without relying on their vision, said Ken Reid, a firefighter. One practice technique: A firefighter dons a face mask covered with aluminum foil and tries to find other firefighters hidden throughout the firehouse.

As an instant firefighter, I rode the boom of the department's snorkel truck 75 feet into the air and watched as a stream of water snorted from the nozzle on the basket's front end; up to 1,000 gallons per minute can be discharged from the boom.

Firefighter Dale Pitts said the snorkel would be used to fight fires in tall buildings such as Deseret Towers at Brigham Young University, Utah Valley Regional Medical Center or the Excelsior Hotel. But it also can be extended up to 30 feet over a stretch of water or land to allow firefighters to reach something. And, it can be used to give firefighters a vantage point in fighting fires in structurally damaged buildings.

"When we need it, nothing else will do," Pitts said.

After my ride in the boom, I tried pushing a 5-gallon plastic bucket up an inclined rope with a focused jet of water from a water hose. I was wearing clothing that weighed almost as much as I do, carrying a hose that weighed more than 50 pounds and trying to move forward despite the backward thrust from the jet of water, which can reach 50 to 80 pounds of pressure; so what if the bucket didn't make it to the tree? I was just thrilled they didn't make me try to do it on my knees, the way it is done in real situations.

The final event was a demonstration of how firefighters extricate people from a car following an accident. With two newspaper photographers "trapped" inside a donated car, Accord and the department, with help from us instant firefighters, crushed windows, popped out the windshield, and using "jaws of life," pried a door open and cut the top off the vehicle. It was as simple as opening a can of tuna.

"We cut the car away from the victim," said Jim Guynn, demonstrating the care taken to protect people inside the car from the gnashing and smashing efforts being used to reach them.

The department responds to approximately 3,000 emergency calls each year; most of those - perhaps 2,000 - are medical calls.

It was a fun way to spend Tuesday morning. But the message was clear: It is nice to know that should you need them, firefighters are there, ready, equipped, trained and prepared. Provo employs 55 firefighters, stationed at two substations on Columbia Lane and in Edgemont and at the main building at city hall.

Much of the department's efforts are focused on education and prevention. The department's information officers spend a lot of time visiting schools and organizations, talking about safety, prevention and how to respond in the event of a fire.

"When the alarm sounds, we've failed," said Chuck Tandy, information officer. "We'd rather do 100 fire-prevention seminars than respond to one fire." The three primary ways residents can protect themselves against fire danger are installing alarm devices in their homes, learning to close bedroom doors at night while sleeping, and organizing and practicing an escape route in case a fire should occur in the home.

Should you need them, the Provo firefighters will be there. But, they hope you won't call.


(Additional information)

Kids and fire

The National Fire Protection Association says 6,215 people died in fires in the United States in 1988. It was the highest death toll since 1981. The association believes existing strategies for preventing fire deaths must be emphasized and that new strategies must be developed to reverse this trend.