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Fire, man!

Photos: Alexander Sobolla

Photos: Alexander Sobolla

While playing damsel in distress has never been Veronica Stivala’s life goal, she found her experience as a ‘fake’ fire victim exciting and enlightening.

Eat your heart out Bridget Jones. I’ve conquered the fire station assignment, dignity intact, outfits in place. My mission? To successfully play the part of a victim as part of a practice crisis exercise for a voluntary fire department in Munich.

I’ll admit that playing a victim, damsel in distress, has not exactly been a life goal, however, knowing that I would be helping firemen get practice in potentially saving people’s lives was definitely a motivating and satisfying factor. I also learnt a good deal about how to act in the terrible eventuality of a fire breaking out.

The team at Freiwillige Feuerwehr Waldperlach.The team at Freiwillige Feuerwehr Waldperlach.

The Freiwillige Feuerwehr Waldperlach (Voluntary Firebrigade Walperlach) operates in tandem with 20 other fire departments in the city. Volunteers and professionals often work together in order to be as efficient as possible. Comprising some 30 members, the brigade sees around 60 incidents a year.

Of course, regular training is imperative for the team to operate seamlessly. Which brings me to their latest exercise, a grand operation held once a year.

At 8am one cold November morning, Stefan Scheller, head of rescue missions, walked me through the incident venue. We walked down hallways of what was once a kindergarten, echoes of its past life still present in the form of brightly coloured cubby holes and disused classrooms. Eventually, we reached a large room that was being pumped with fake smoke.

Of course, were this to be real smoke I would have passed out after inhaling one or two breaths. The trick, even in this fake smoke, through which I could see nothing, was to crawl on my knees by the wall. The lower you are the easier it is to see and to breathe. I was then told to sit by a window just outside this room. “Hang around here,” advised one fireman. “You can pretend to be a bit lightheaded as this is what happens when people inhale fumes and you will probably find it difficult to walk properly.”

Getting into character, I soon found myself being escorted by two firewomen, who held me securely from underneath my arms. They had found the nearest exit and helped me into one of their trucks, talking to me the whole while and checking whether I needed any further assistance. I was helped into a warm, nearby parked firetruck and given water.

The trick, even in this fake smoke, through which I could see nothing, was to crawl on my knees by the wall

I had never been inside a firetruck before. Every nook and cranny inside the grey and yellow interiors of this big vehicle had been used intelligently as storage space with articles in their labelled places –helmets, water bottles, safety gloves and some items, which, despite their label, I still could not make out. I could, however, make out the little minion soft toy that hung from the truck’s roof.

Saving people is the priority and the team could then focus on putting out the fire and checking the rest of the building. I was impressed by the speed at which I was found and then rushed to safe ground. Admittedly, to an outsider, the exercise seemed haphazard. But, as Fireman Scheller explained to me, it was all a neatly planned operation.

The writer during the exercise.The writer during the exercise.

Decked in his black fireman’s jacket with fluorescent silver and yellow bands, this fireman is referred to in German as the Hauptlöschmeister. His role is to manage rescue missions. When there are no rescue missions, Stefan is in charge of training.

Many firetrucks were lined up outside the scene of the incident. However, they were all receiving orders from the first fire engine, being led by the rescue mission leader, who takes the main decisions and drives the operation. In brief, the leader first assesses the situation trying to discover how many victims there are, what exactly has caught fire and what the biggest risks are in the forthcoming minutes. Having assessed the manpower available, he distributes tasks, while continuously overseeing the situation.

Head of rescue, Stefan Scheller.Head of rescue, Stefan Scheller.

Because this was a training exercise, we repeated the rescue mission, this time with me having to wait, together with another victim, in a small room in the basement… again, with smoke encircling us. Despite this being a fake exercise, I admit I was not entirely at ease standing around in this small room with only a high, tiny window to look out from.

My fellow victim was also a young fireman in training. The same fire brigade has an under-18 department which in addition to the obvious induction into the world of fire rescue, provides a welcoming environment, one in which to make friends and work together as a team, as this young fireman tells me.

We were both grateful when our rescuers found us – the waiting time was a bit longer this time – and pulled us through the open grating, as this was the quickest and safest mode of escape.

Finally, a break. I sat down for a comforting lunch comprising steaming hot broth, doled out by a fireman from a pot at the back of his truck, and a white bread roll. Never was a meal so welcomed. As we tucked in, I joined in the happy banter. What’s the most difficult part of fire rescue, I asked: “Not being able to see,” answered one.  “You have to use your ears and listen,” he added. And the best part? “It’s family,” they all agreed, before slipping back into their cheery conversation and enjoying some more tasty soup.

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