A bona fide trial by fire

At 6-foot 5-inches, crawling through a 16-by-16-inch hole with more than 50 pounds of gear is no easy task for Burbank Fire Engineer Matt Garland.

When it’s dark, smoky and loud and the floor moves like a teeter-totter, he lets muscle memory kick in.

“The main thing is to keep calm,” Garland said after climbing out of a manhole at the Burbank Fire Department Training Center Saturday morning.

Garland is one of 120 Burbank firefighters who took part in a three-day training course aimed at keeping firefighters alive.


Over the past decade, the number of fires has been decreasing nationwide, but the number of firefighters dying per fire has stayed constant, said Capt. Dave Schmitt, who helped design the new training regimen with the International Assn. of Fire Fighters.

A handful of fire departments have completed the program since it launched last year. Burbank is only the second agency in Los Angeles County to do so, Schmitt said.

The training puts blinded firefighters through a maze of smoke, tight spaces, hanging wires, unstable floors and other obstacles. They also learn how to hang out of a window, crawl through a web of wires and get out of a simulated-burning room without leaving anyone behind.

“We’ve had firefighters die within 8 feet of a doorway because they get caught in wires,” Schmitt said.


Some of the obstacles are modeled from real mistakes. A few years ago, firefighters in New York had to jump out of a three-story window as fire consumed a building. But they didn’t use the hanging technique of hooking one arm and one leg inside the window that the Burbank firefighters practiced during the training session, Schmitt said.

Recently a firefighter in Texas got lost in a building after dropping the fire hose that led back to the exit. So on Saturday, the firefighters learned how to avoid that situation, too.

“We’re teaching firefighters to survive these elements,” Schmitt said.

Several of the firefighters said training can be as difficult as responding to a call.

“It’s as real as it can get,” said Capt. Jim Goldstein.

The real nerve-racking part of training is the fear of failure, fellow Capt. Jeff Howe said.

“You want to succeed in training because it’s going to mean life and death out there.”