STAR photographer gets first-hand look at brotherhood of firefighters

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   In New York last week, firefighters at Ground Zero were arrested because they refused to leave even one shred of fellow firefighters' turnout gear to be buried in a scoop-and-dump operation.
   With more than 200 firefighters still missing, their comrades wanted proper burial for the remains, even if it was just that one shred of turnout gear.
   That brotherhood may be difficult to understand, but it exists among all emergency responders. STAR Director of Photography Rick Harris got a glimpse of that camaraderie last week when he was allowed to go on site with Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department as they worked a controlled burn for the U.S. Forest Service in the Oliver Hollow section of Hampton.
   "I've always had a lot of respect for firefighters, emergency personnel and police, and kind of wanted to see what they did. I didn't really understand other than (from) an outsider's point of view," Harris said.
   Hampton Fire Chief Kelly Taylor provided Harris instruction on emergency procedure.
   "They taught me breathing techniques to make the air last longer. They told me what was going to happen -- smoke was going to fill the room, how high it would probably come off of the floor -- they had it down to a science," Harris said.
   "They piled everything in one corner of the room in the center of the house and lit the fire with a flare. I was in an adjacent room, shooting it. I had on full turnout gear with an air pack.
   "The fire is real interesting. The way it starts, it goes up the wall and then walks across the ceiling looking for the nearest escape. It's almost like a living thing, it just rolls across. There at one time we had fire a foot to 2 feet over our heads and it was going for the window behind us," he said.
   "Firefighters come in on their knees to stay below the smoke and fire so they can see what to hit. When they spray the water, it expands to steam and that's actually what puts the fire out. In a closed environment that can actually black out the room to where you can't see," he said.
   "The new firefighters came in crawling on their knees, holding on to each other's air packs, the lead man dragging the hose. They blew the fire down. The entire room was filled with flames and a short two or three second bursts basically knocked it down. Then they waited for it to build back up to put it out again. Of course, while we're sitting there, the fire is crawling across the ceiling again and going back over our heads," he said, laughing.
   One thing he already knew hit home: "These guys are either incredibly brave or they're incredibly crazy. Most of them don't get paid for it. They go out there for the feeling of helping their neighbor. They're basically unsung heroes, in my opinion," Harris said.
   "There's a great deal of camaraderie among these folks. The bottom line is, they basically depend on each other for their lives when they go into a fire, and because of that there's like a brotherhood that builds up. They watch out for each other and become closer than most siblings, I guess," Harris said.
   "They keep real good track of each other, constantly checking on positions. They know who goes in, how many there are, what their names are, to make sure they get out. It's total organization in the middle of chaos."
   No novice at "ambulance chasing," Harris has responded to his share of fires, wrecks and homicides, right behind emergency personnel.
   "One of the things that really tees me off about it, is the fire truck or an ambulance or police cruiser will come out and hit the road with lights and siren blaring, and people won't get out of their way. They'll be going 25 mph in front of them and just ignore them. And yet, it's like one of the poems Kelly gave me, said, "If it's your house, then the first thing you're going to say is, 'Man, it took you a long time to get here.'
   "The other thing -- and most folks don't understand this, but people who have worked emergency scenes do -- is you'll see firefighters, police and emergency workers standing around an emergency scene joking or laughing. The main thing is, these guys see so much of this, that to keep it from building up on them, they have to be able to joke and laugh, because if they didn't they'd go nuts.
   "When you go to a scene and you see a child that's been injured or killed, or somebody's lost a loved one and they're standing there breaking down, it just really hits you at your heart. They have a lot of feelings for these folks, but they've got to let off that intensity somewhere," he said.
   (Editor's note: As part of its annual fund raising, the Hampton/Valley Forge Volunteer Fire Department is now offering "tot-finder" stickers for local residents. Persons with children, handicapped or elderly individuals in the home can place a sticker on the window of the house so firefighters will know exactly where they are during an emergency and get them out. For information, call 725-3500.)