PEORIA — For some, the experience was claustrophobic, for others it was a real-life experience in controlled chaos. For all, it was a chance to walk in firefighters' boots.
The Peoria Firefighters Union Local 50 hosted a handful of City Council members on Friday for a daylong immersion in the types of scenarios the city's firefighters encounter on a regular basis, including extinguishing a live indoor fire as others conduct a search and rescue operation in the training tower at the city's fire academy.
"We thought it was pertinent that members of the council know what it's like to walk in our shoes, or at least to have a brief snapshot," said Local 50 President Ryan Brady. "I think now they have a better appreciation for just what the Peoria Fire Department does, and I hope now they have a better understanding of what it takes to be a firefighter."
For At-Large City Councilwoman Beth Jensen, that meant a lot more blind maneuvering than she expected.
"I was surprised when I did the search and rescue, how much you can't see," Jensen said. "You're really just crawling and knocking things with that axe."
And everyone else in the room is just as blinded by the thick smoke. When roles were changed, and Jensen worked a hose while others conducted the search and rescue, she watched that team suddenly emerge from the smoke, and they all had to figure out how to maneuver in a tight space with a growing threat.
"They said it's always controlled chaos. ... I was disoriented. You don't know where you're going, you can't see anything, but people are coming by and bumping into you," Jensen said. They passed, and we just went back to work and put out the fire."
At-Large Councilman Zach Oyler had a different initial impression. With layers of heavy clothes, hood, helmet, air tank, mask and other gear, the thick air during the first course on fire behavior contributed to a sensation of claustrophobia.
"It's difficult to maneuver around in all that gear," Oyler said. "It's much different than showing up in normal clothes and trying to accomplish anything, and seconds matter in a very challenging environment."
As with Jensen, Oyler said he gained a new level of respect for the work Peoria's firefighters accomplish every day. And he learned something about himself.
"It definitely told me how out of shape I am. I'm exhausted just by the time I got in the building," Oyler said. "They do it so effortlessly, but for me it seemed like a 15-minute ordeal just to get the gear on."
Matt Buedel can be reached at 686-3154 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.