What Does It Feel Like To Be a Firefighter?

A firefighter sprays water on a flare up as a wildfire burns along the Pacific Coast Highway near Point Mugu, Calif., May 3, 2013.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by George Kellerman, former firefighter, partner and fire chief at 500 Startups:

It feels like PURE ADRENALINE.

I served as a firefighter and a rescue crew chief in the U.S. Air Force for three and half years, and during that time I fought many different kinds of fires. It’s hard to explain what firefighting feels like in the abstract because every fire is unique, but let me try a little thought experiment with you to give you a general idea.

As you are reading this look around the room you are in. Note where the windows, doors, and furniture are. Now try to reconstruct the adjoining room from your memory. You’ve probably been in that particular room before, so you should have a fairly good idea where everything is.

Now imagine that you can’t see anything. The fire has shorted out electricity to the building (or the fire department has shut if off for their own safety), so all of the lights have gone out, and the room is rapidly filling with thick gray smoke, so much smoke that not even sunlight can get in.

At first you think to yourself, “I can get out of here. I’ve been in here before, and I know my way out.” But that was when you were walking upright and could see. Now imagine doing it on your hands and knees because the smoke is toxic and superheated, so you can’t stand up in it. So imagine yourself blinded and crawling on your hands and knees trying to FEEL your way out.

Imagine how hard that would be, especially if you had the added stress of actually being in a burning building. Now imagine that you had never been in that building before—that’s what it feels like to be a firefighter. The only difference is that the firefighter is rushing in while you’re rushing out.

As a firefighter, you constantly find yourself rushing into completely unknown situations where you might be injured or killed— you don’t know what is on fire, you don’t know the layout of the building, you don’t know who is in the building, you don’t know whether the roof is about to collapse, you don’t know if your equipment will fail or you will run out of air at the wrong time—it’s a laundry list of unknowns, but you go in anyway because you are so hopped up on adrenaline that you think you can do anything.

Another aspect of firefighting that many people may be unaware of is the fact that it engages all five of your senses, and because you are high on adrenaline, time slows down and you become even more acutely aware of your surroundings. Here are just a few examples from my own experience:

  • Sight: In a typical house fire, you can’t see anything when you first enter the building. The smoke is simply too thick. You’re wearing a breathing apparatus with a face mask, but that doesn’t really help you see—it just keeps the smoke out of your eyes and lungs. As you get closer to the fire, you can start to see a faint orange glow through the smoke, and as you get closer, it gets brighter. At that point, however, you should be putting water on the fire, and as soon as you do that, the water instantly converts to steam and the color goes from gray to white, but you still can’t see very much, if anything.
  • Touch: Being in a fire is hot, super hot. One time, I got first degree burns on my skin because my sweat turned to steam and scalded me. Right about that same time, my air ran out, so I went outside and took off my mask. One of the medics noticed how red my face was, so they made me strip off my jacket, and then they hosed me off to cool me down. Another time, the clear face mask on my helmet bubbled and warped from the extreme heat. At the same time you are feeling this heat, however, your overall sense of touch is dramatically diminished because you are wearing gloves and heavy protective equipment. One time, we responded to a fire where kids were reported to still be in the house. I was the first one in, so I was searching the living room on my hands and knees unable to see anything through the smoke. I felt a soft form roughly the size of a small child under the dining room table, but I couldn’t tell what it was through the gloves and the smoke, so I scooped it up and carried it outside. It wasn’t until I was outside in fresh air that I could see it was the family dog, not one of their children.
  • Sound: You’ve probably heard a campfire crackle and pop before. Now imagine that the crackling and popping sound is coming at you from every direction, above you, below you, in front of you, behind you, and to the sides. The reason is because everything that’s on fire is making noise—the floors, the walls, the ceiling—iit’s everywhere. You can also hear strange noises like light bulbs popping, walls creaking, glass breaking, mattress springs letting loose, things falling over, etc. Another unmistakable sound is the sound of water flashing into steam as you spray it on the superheated ceiling, which is quickly followed by an eerie stillness that fills the room as the fire starts to go out. Then there is the ever-present sound of your breathing in the breathing apparatus. It sounds like a scuba diver, and it’s actually a pretty comforting sound, because it means you’re still alive. There is, however, one sound that you never want to hear in your breathing apparatus, and that is the warning bell on your air tank telling you that you have less than 5 minutes of air left.
  • Smell: When you are responding to a fire you can often catch a whiff of the fire before you get there, and it can tell you a lot about what is burning (i.e., whether it is oil, wood, furniture, a car, etc.). Once you put your mask on and enter the fire, however, you can’t really smell much of anything except the rubber smell of your mask, your own sweat, and a smokey smell that is lingering on your equipment from previous fires. At some point after the fire is out, however, you’ll take your mask off, and then you’ll experience a whole new range of smells depending on what had been burning—wood, plastic, carpet, clothes, paint, gas, paper, food, etc.
  • Taste: It’s hard to explain, but you can sometimes even taste a fire. It’s probably really just a function of smell, but if you inhale a lot of smoke or get some soot in your mouth—which might not actually happen during the firefighting but later when you are doing the mop up—then you can get this smokey taste in your mouth that can stay with you for awhile.

So far, I have mainly described the physical sensations of firefighting, but there is another far more powerful feeling that comes from firefighting, and that is the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from saving someone’s life. I can’t even begin to describe it, but it’s as real, powerful, and memorable as any of the physical sensations I have ever experienced fighting fire.

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