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Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"Ladder for life"

by Maria Eleanor Elape Valeros
November 8, 2004

Sharing my four-year stint as a volunteer for the Rescue 160 of the Bureau of Fire Protection here is inspired by the John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix starrer, "Ladder 49".

A co-volunteer of Rescue 160 coined the _expression "ladder for life" during one of the seminars we were required to attend. It was actually a pun for "slide for life" which he used to refer to the ladder techniques taught to us. The phrase was coined primarily to give us the kick.

Though "ladder for life" was at first a very awkward phrase, we have come to adopt it to refer to our romance with ladders in rescue drills. Later on, we have also come to embrace the fact that the ladder indeed is made to extend not only the capacity to do work, but life itself. At some points, we are challenged to cling on to the ladder – for dear life!

Ladders come in handy, and when locked on the rung, it can be adaptable to jobs of any size – from window cleaning, to tree cutting, vine pruning, decorating, painting, cleaning out gutters – and in fire fighting, most especially high angle evacuation procedures in search and rescue/retrieve missions.

Ladders, may be simple machines, but they come in for the purpose of accomplishing things in an easy, safe and secured manner. Of course, they vary according to purpose.

There are the aluminum and timber step ladders and loft ladders and double and triple aluminum extension ladders for various trades, spiral and space-saving staircases at homes, schools and offices, durable and strong towers for buildings, and of course, the specialist ladders for surveying roof work and for fire escapes.

How did I come to appreciate these "ladders for life"? An experience back in childhood sent me on a journey to the Bureau of Fire Protection as volunteer for the Rescue 160 group. I threw myself into a group of novice rescuers and firefighters in the earnest hope I would be able to deal with pyrophobia after I almost had our family house reduced to ashes.

I was only about ten years old when tasked to prepare supper. I had to stir-fry tomatoes in heated cooking oil. But as soon as the dripping tomatoes sizzled on the smoky fat, flames from the firewood consumed everything on the frying pan. It happened so fast that the ball of flame sitting on the pan danced before me and began licking the nipa-thatched roof. I was quick to grab a gallon of water and poured the contents into the fire-consumed pan. I contained the flame, and put off any bigger damage but the experience really left me trembling, both in literally and figuratively.

My parents are both advocates of safety. They would tell us never to mess around with matchsticks, to never leave the house without putting down the lever of the fuse box, or to always make sure cords for the teevee and that of other appliances are always unplugged after use. For a time, I wouldn’t want to go near that dirty stove that gave my spine burning sensations.

So I decided the time to deal with pyrophobia is to be near the fire - to dance to the tune of the flames and to do a romance with the heat, to literally play with the blaze. At the bureau, I met men who "rush into burning and collapsing structures when everyone else are running out.”

Seeing those men do the opposite thing — straight into the hands of peril — gives me a feeling of being grateful to strangers who do the dirtiest, hardest, most stressful work in the world because they believe they should.
Right there and then, I have come to witness the nobility of a goal and the love of work made visible. And from there, I have come to realize that the ladder, simple as it is, is the most difficult thing to handle in rescue operations.

All the while, I thought it was the rope techniques for I find doing it so complicated. To deal with the ladder, one must learn to climb it with an erect body, without holding on to it, so as to free the hands. This training allows the body to carry a victim or patient or other tools up and down the ladder. The next technique to master is sliding, facing the ladder, touching its smooth sides. This comes in handy whenever one wants to save time in the descent. I had my share of bruises and gashes on my hands, arms, and even on my chin (hee hee) before I learned to accomplish this technique with the grace of a pro firefighter.

"Ayaw lagi suwanga, Nor. Don’t hold on too tight and don’t get your face near that thing. Slip lightly at the sides," my mentor would scold me.

Firemen are rescuers who at any moment could swap roles with those being rescued. This happened to Joaquin Phoenix (Fireman Jack Morrison) in Ladder 49, my mentor would relate. At the ladder team, he once worked on checking the roof, thudding it with the head of his axe, but the structure was already gutted by fire and was too weak to hold his weight. He slipped through the ceiling and was, within seconds, gobbled up by the blaze.

Thanks to a fire-resistant suit and a quick mind that’s been seasoned to handle a situation like that, he was able to bring himself to a portion away from the lapping flames. Eventually, he was lying on his tummy, making good use of fresh air available a foot from the floor, while waiting for his teammates to locate him. Reversal of roles! That is a dazzling fact, and my mentor says every firefighter must come to work with this biting reality.

Fire fighting could not be that popular a career back here and firemen are not at all times given the full honors accorded to three of John Travolta’s (Engine 33 Captain Mike Kennedy) men in funeral rites. But I would somehow recommend to young men and women to go and pursue fire fighting. It is a career able to exalt man’s purpose: made for service!

Firemen have this contagious passion for the ladder. Love and service performed on a ladder connects them to people clinging on to an endangered life that’s bound to change. Because, however risky fire fighting may be, there has to be somebody willing to give up his very own life for a job that has to be done!

(For your fiery comments, flaming reactions, blazing suggestions and razing contributions, burn up my addy: pinay_mangatkatay@yahoo.com. Celebrate firemen’s spaces in space!)

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