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Fire Training – Claustrophobia Moment + Panic Attack

Fire Training – Claustrophobia Moment + Panic Attack

John R Kowalski, fire training, scba

It was an interesting night this past Tuesday at fire training. One of our neighboring fire departments, Walden’s Ridge Emergency Services (yes, the one we beat in the BBQ Smoke Competition), had rented the state confidence (search and rescue) trailer, and invited us to use it. Signal Mountain Fire Department gave a good description of it:

The trailer was designed to improve firefighter knowledge, confidence and the ability to function in challenging situations while wearing their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). With limited, to no vision and confined spaces firefighters encounter scenarios where they navigate through obstacles and features similar to what they might encounter in a structure fire while wearing their SCBA.

Robert Clark, Signal Mountain Fire Department

The trailer is equipped with a maze of tunnels, slides, holes, wires and frames of a house and attic. Not only were we crawling through this in full gear (70-ish lbs.) breathing air, we also did it in the dark with no flashlights or helmet lights.

Here’s a video that Robert Clark of Signal Mountain Fire Department shot that shows more of the interior than my photos. Check it out.

John R Kowalski, fire training, scba
Yes, that’s me. 837. The before picture.

Since fire school (2019) I had not done such a challenge and never had a feeling of claustrophobia. That changed this last time. Nearly 1/3 of the way through the trailer I couldn’t twist my body enough to get me and my airpack (SCBA, or self-contained breathing apparatus) through. Damn. My partner in there said I had about ½” to go to get through, but for some reason I seized up and it wasn’t going to happen. I had thoughts of getting stuck and then with knowing I had low air (I could always unhook and breathe fine since this was training and no smoke was in the trailer), that only made things worse.

I took a few moments to just sit and slow down my breathing… and just then my low air alarm went off. This signifies that I have about 7-ish minutes of air left. This high-pitched alarm that would not go off. This didn’t help my calm by any means and set me off with one task… get out. I told my partner it wasn’t going to happen and that I was needing to get out and get out now.

Moment of Claustrophobia, Panic Attack

My breathing and pulse elevated, and I made my way back out. Then up the slippery slide where another firefighter was able to grab my hand and get me up and out. Immediately I got my mask off, jacket open, helmet off and need to lay down. The members helped me get my equipment off and our emergency medical responders were there. Immediately started cooling me down, monitoring my pulse, etc. I think I had my first bout of claustrophobia with a touch of panic attack. Not much fun but it didn’t take long, and I was feeling back to normal. Just some rest and water. The rain that night helped too. That reminds me, hopefully my gear has dried out by now. I’ll need to swing by the hall.

That’s why we train. I’ll be at it again next week, so we’ll see how my mental state gets through things.

Unfortunately I don’t have an ‘after’ picture. But just imagine me laying on my back with gear all over under a pleasant drizzle of a rain.

Cheers and keep training!

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