Firefighter wannabes fuel thrills, douse fears

A volunteer fire department's recruitment effort lets regular folks fulfill burning desires to try firefighting.

April 10, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

There's the doctor. The finance officer and her 20-year-old son. The adrenaline-junkie pancake house owner.

Altogether, seven people from wildly different backgrounds who shared this weekend with one goal in common: a desire to quench their firefighter fantasies.

To recruit members, the all-volunteer Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department put out a message: "Who Will Answer the Call?"

Nearly 40 people answered, signing up for firefighter training. In addition, these seven enlisted for a "fantasy weekend," where people could pay $30 and spend a few days in a firefighter's boots - hosing fires, climbing ladders, accompanying firefighters on calls and sleeping at the station.

FOR THE RECORD - An article Sunday about firefighter fantasy weekend incorrectly characterized the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department. The department has several full-time paid employees.

"It's come down and live the life for a weekend," says Bill Rehkopf, the department's public information officer.

Yesterday morning at the Carroll County Fire Training Center in Westminster, the seven were ready for all that. That is, if they could get their gear on.

Pulling on the bulky coveralls, stepping into the tall boots, figuring out the oxygen equipment - 40 to 50 pounds of gear in all - is harder than it looks. As the newbies struggle to strap it and clasp it and button it all on, one of the firefighters cheerfully says, "Once you get fast at it, you can get it all on in two minutes."

Having particular trouble is Dee Prastein, 32, a surgical resident at the University of Maryland. The potential thrill and the learning experience lured her to sign up with a friend.

"It just sounded like an adventure, like something challenging," she says. "For me, it's interesting to see the other side, what happens before people get to the emergency room."

Prastein says that she's there just for the weekend. She's too busy to fight fires regularly. And right there is the volunteer fire company's biggest recruitment obstacle: Who's got the time?

When the department members are not fighting fires, they're working as engineers, police officers, construction workers and office managers. Full-time jobs, families, friends - and about 800 fire calls a year. It's a lot to manage. "We all have lives and we all have things going on," Rehkopf says.

Though the 36 new recruits bring the department up to 70 volunteers, everyone knows they won't all last. "Realistically," Rehkopf says, "we'd like to hang onto at least half of them."

But this weekend is about good, sooty fun. Not necessarily recruitment.

So in full gear, the seven huddle with real firefighters outside the door of a charred concrete structure called "the burn building." This is where firefighters learn to battle house fires and where this group will experience a burning building from the inside.

One by one, they crawl into the smoky darkness. They disappear, swallowed by the smoke, almost immediately after passing through the doorframe.

Inside, they use their hands to follow the hose line. They also follow the heat. If it's getting hotter, they're going the right way.

This is exactly the kind of insanity that Imad Nehme was hoping for.

The 44-year-old from Eldersburg, who owns two IHOP restaurants, is the kind of guy who seeks out amusement parks with the tallest roller coasters and goes for a spin at the Daytona 500 racetrack. Buildings in flames are just his element.

As Nehme leaves the burn building, he grabs a bottle of water and splashes some onto his red face and into his hair. "I can't put the whole thing out cause they need to have fun with it, too," he says, motioning to those who haven't yet tried it.

Nehme is the father of four, three girls and a 4-year-old named Sammy who goes crazy when he sees fire engines. Yesterday, that was the dad's role.

"It's just unbelievable in there," Nehme says excitedly. "You can't see yourself! And it's smoking and it's hot - ohmygod!"

One of the seven, however, is anything but adventure-minded.

"I'm 45. I'm female. I've worked in an office for 25 years. I'm the person who freezes in an emergency," says Becky Tims, the chief financial officer for a Baltimore architecture firm.

Twenty-five years ago, Tims was critically injured in a car accident, a head-on collision on her way to work. As she lay in the car with a ruptured spleen, a collapsed lung, severed ligaments and dozens of broken bones, an emergency services team rescued her. "I'm doing this to challenge myself," she says. "But maybe it's also to honor them."

Come late morning though, honor isn't foremost on Tims' mind. The Sykesville mom is frozen, looking out a first-story open window at ladder propped outside it. "I'm scared of the stepladder to get something from the pantry," she tells the firefighter with her.

"Oh, c'mon," he cajoles. "This is just like that." He persuades her to straddle the window ledge, one leg in, one leg out.

"Oh, God," she breathes. Next, she's to reach for the ladder and swing the other leg out and onto it. She does, but not without wincing and muttering a staccato "oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh."

"I'm not gonna think about what I'm afraid of," Tims said just before the climbing exercise. "That's what this weekend is about."

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