Flashover Experience

By Pastor Gary Cortese, Chaplain - Byron Fire District

            I was privileged to experience a training opportunity with the Stamford (Conn.) Fire and Rescue Department. The Flashover Simulator helps students recognize the signs of an impending flashover (which is probably the closest we mortals can come to hell-fire in this world).


            Before sharing my thoughts and observations on this important training exercise I would like, first of all, to express my gratitude and appreciation to Byron Fire. I’m indebted to you for allowing me the opportunity to serve as a Chaplain in our community, to learn many valuable lessons and to build this important ministry to our emergency workers here and elsewhere. This truly has been a labor of love for me and I consider you my “extended flock.”       


I would like to acknowledge and thank Chief Antonio Conte of the Stamford Fire and Rescue Department (see picture at left) for inviting me to experience this opportunity. Chief Conte made sure I was properly geared up and paired up. Also, to Captain Tom Gloersen, Rescue 1/Engine 5, who acted as my guardian angel watching over me and allowing me to experience the training exercise with minimal fear and trepidation.


Frank Maduri           Finally, to the other personnel who were so very helpful including Frank Maduri (picture at right) who captured this event through photos. Firefighters are a special breed. At the heart of what they do is to render aid and help those who are in need.


            After a tragic fire claimed the lives of three beautiful children and their two grandparents on Christmas morning in this Connecticut suburb of N.Y. City my thoughts and prayers have been with everyone involved. I’ve spoken with several of the Firefighters who responded that terrible morning and to one of my own relatives who was on scene for the Police Department. I’ve thought long and hard about many things since that horrific event. As a spiritual leader and advisor I’m often asked the hard questions about life and death. Sometimes there just are no good answers.


            I wanted to meet the Fire Chief, look into his eyes, shake his hand and let him know I’m praying for him and his department. Someone very special to me and to the City of Stamford made that happen during a recent visit (and I will never forget). As I talked with Chief Conte he mentioned the flashover simulator and offered the chance for me to experience it. Knowing that this was a unique opportunity for a Career Pastor and Chaplain to help enhance my ministry to firefighters I accepted the Chief’s generous offer.


            Let me recount for you my thoughts as Chief Conte carefully provided me with the necessary protective gear. The Chief was an obvious professional, a seasoned veteran who knew exactly what he was doing and why. Giving clear instruction and providing solid leadership, I couldn’t help but immediately like him. He was real.


            As I looked around at this diverse Groupgroup I noticed young trainees, the students, from other departments, many of whom weren’t any older than my own children. This was an exciting moment for them and they were very eager to “suit up” and be ready for the full experience. It was obvious they were proud of what they were doing and rightfully so. They were at the start of what could be a long and rewarding journey of saving lives and protecting property.


            I noticed also the instructors. These men had a different air about them. It was a commanding presence and a no-nonsense approach to what they were offering: wisdom, knowledge, experience and passion for who they were and what they did. I had the sense that these were battle-hardened warriors who knew that preserving and protecting human life depended upon training and experience.


Checking for safety           Students were not permitted to be disrespectful, careless or sloppy. There were no less than three checks of my protective gear, starting with the Chief himself followed by the two Captains. I was sent out of the simulator almost immediately to change helmets because one of the attached closures wasn’t secure enough. Lives depend on properly functioning equipment. Lives depend on discipline. Lives depend on respect. Lives depend on obeying orders. Lives depend on doing things right.


            You can talk to any Firefighter or stop by the Byron Fire Headquarters sometime and ask them about the technical aspects of what a flashover is - I’m just a pastor who prays for those who enter the belly of hell. But the one message that was loud and clear is this: You do not want to be caught in one and it is absolutely imperative that trainees learn to recognize conditions that precede a flashover. Captain Gloersen said that very few Firefighters have survived a true flashover and lived to talk about it…those who do tell it from the burn center of the hospital.

 check mask          

            After reviewing some basics with me about the regulator, mask and air pack, Captain Gloersen’s watchful and attentive eye over me served as a calming presence. Knowing that he was going to be with me throughout the experience allowed me to focus on learning and not worrying about whether or not I was going to be the first student ever to be lost in this great abyss!


            Having the Captain with me confirmed how important it is to have a veteran in the heat of battle. The weaker ones can draw upon their strength. The knowledge and information he freely shared with me was invaluable, his confidence was like a supporting pillar for my uncertainty.

            in can

             What moved me more than anything else during this event wasn’t how dark and smoky it was, or how difficult it was to see anything. It wasn’t even the fact that it got a little warm in that steel box, or even that I was out of my own comfort zone, but the fact that I knew beforehand the layout of this simulator and how to find my way out and it was still creepy and eerie. But in a real live fire in your house (where conditions are much worse) they’re still coming in to rescue you and they don’t know where you are in the house or the floor plan of what your home looks like. They know the risks and dangers involved but are still coming in to rescue you! That got my attention.

 Chaplain Cortese          

            As I crawled out of the simulator and in to the open air and sunlight I couldn’t help but think about how grateful I was to have a nice clean white helmet of my own that said BYRON FIRE CHAPLAIN and I intended for it to stay that way! My job is to pray for those whose job it is to go into hellish-like conditions and rescue those who would never stand a chance otherwise.


            God Bless you, the guardians, who hazard their own lives so that others might live.

Comments can be sent to chaplain@byronfire.com

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