Falling from a window, getting trapped under a collapsed roof, going through a floor and getting tangled in a bunch of wire is all a part of the job for Lexington firefighter Harry Gilbert.
Gilbert, a 23-year veteran, said that putting his body through a series of courses tests his ability to save citizens, himself and, if needed, other firefighters.
"I love my job. And the more I can learn, the better I can do my job. This is fun. It's exciting. It's a confidence-builder."
Gilbert, 52, is one of 800 firefighters at Heritage Hall and other Lexington locations for the 86th annual Kentucky State Fire School.
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It's not just about fighting fires. Participants learn to detect and dismantle hazardous waste and illicit drug labs and how to protect and care for those they're serving — and also themselves. The four-day, eight-hour courses are action-packed.
Ronnie Day, a Morehead firefighter and executive director of the Kentucky Fire Commission, said the school has always been a way for firefighters to complete their required training hours. Volunteer firefighters must complete 150 hours of training within two years, and paid firefighters must finish 400 hours, including maintaining 100 hours of training a year. Volunteer firefighters must maintain 20 hours a year.
Kentucky has 22,000 firefighters in 828 departments.
"The fire service and technology is changing at a rapid pace and it's doing it daily," Day said. "And it's something you have to stay on top of. If you don't, you can find yourself behind times real quick, and when we get ourselves and our people behind times, that's when we wind up in trouble, and that's what we don't want."
Firefighters go through a series of training exercises, with the most exciting happening at old buildings and in parking lots.
At 347 Scott Street in an old tobacco warehouse, Rapid Intervention Team Training helps firefighters develop survival and rescue skills.
Behind Rupp Area, firefighters work on ways to rescue trapped people and practice how to deal with an emergency on a farm.
"It's a tough, tough course," said Captain Dustin Whited, who handled administrative responsibilities for the Rapid Intervention Team Training. "When the fire department goes out, and nobody (can) rescue the fireman, we're the rescuers."
Courses teach firefighters how to handle real-life scenarios, including a "mayday" situation such as being knocked down, cut off due to debris or flames, falling through a floor or ceiling and being entangled in wiring. Any of these situations could dictate that a firefighter call "mayday" and request aid from teammates.
Whited said that a fire could involve many factors — people, animals, environment — that must be considered before entering the scene.
Sometimes, the risk outweighs the benefit.
When performing a rescue, firefighters have to consider several factors, such as whether or not the person can adequately breathe and the added weight of the gear.
It takes 12 to 15 firefighters to rescue one, said Whited, quoting a study and illustrating how much teamwork is required to save a fellow firefighter.
"It's a dangerous job ... but we still weigh risk versus benefit," said Whited, who noted that emotions often run high in the tense situations. "Your worst day as a commander is to lose a fireman."
Whited noted that it's not uncommon, especially at small fire departments, to have relatives and lifelong friends working alongside one another, making situations even more emotional.
"Anytime you go get somebody it's emotionally taxing, but when you get somebody that you've grown up with, somebody that's literally your brother, then that makes it even tougher," Whited said. "So it's emotionally taxing, it's physically taxing, and we're trying to prepare them for all that."
Lexington Fire Department Battalion Chief Gregg Bayer said Kentucky's Fire School is the longest-running school in the nation. It attracts fire officials from Ohio, Indiana and other states. Courses are taught by Lexington firefighters and crews from the state's fire commission.
Bayer said the training has become much more intensive over the years because firefighters are seen as authority figures and people may want to hurt them, so detecting trouble and self-awareness in serious emergencies is something that needs to be taught. The 2001 terrorist attacks have made firefighters pay close attention to hazardous waste and collapsed buildings, he said.
"The bottom line is firefighting is the highest form of blue-collar work there is, and we continually will send people into harm's way to save life and property," Bayer said. "So what this school does is bring the latest and the greatest technology so that our people can safely and effectively do their jobs and go home to their families."
In the midst of water, smoke, ladders and blaring sirens, the school represents a brotherhood and sisterhood like no other, Bayer said.
Each year the school has a theme. A pink fire truck from the Radcliff and Vine Grove fire department saluted this year's "Pink Heals" theme to celebrate cancer survivors and honor victims.
Joe Vissing, 41, a Lexington firefighter for 16 years, died in April after a yearlong battle with stage 4 skin cancer.
"We kind of form our second family," Bayer said. "The majority of your time you spend is with your coworkers and your colleagues. A third of my life as a Lexington firefighter has been spent with my firefighter family. That's a significant amount of time. You get to know these people intimately."