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Opinion :: The Ladder Lesson: A new perspective inspires appreciation for firefighters
· 9:10am September 3rd, 2013
Ever since I first saw the Vinton Fire Department's bright yellow aerial ladder truck extended to its height of more than 100 feet, I have wondered what it would be like to climb to the top.
On a few occasions, firefighters have said, "Hey, Dean, we will let you climb up there sometime." But on those occasions, the ladder, firemen and I were not in the same place.
"Go ahead," said firefighter Luke Henkle, as we stood outside the fire station, waiting for Tilford second grade students to come for their tour.
What it's like up there?
Two words: Surprisingly terrifying.
I am not afraid of heights; I even rode the tallest Ferris wheel at the Iowa State Fair.
And the aerial ladder is designed for safety. It's got huge padded rungs. Both sides are at least 18 inches tall, making it virtually impossible to fall over the side.
And still, after about 30 feet, my body said to my mind: "OK. High enough."
I looked down.
I decided to climb a few more rungs -- without looking down again.
The public safety people tell you that the key to being safe on a ladder is the "three points of contact rule." That means, at all times, at least two hands and one foot, or two feet and one hand, are firmly planted on something stable.
Me, I used about seven or eight points of contact yesterday. Hands. Feet. Hips. Knees. Chest. Anything that was available was as firmly connected to that ladder as I could keep it.
It took a while, trying to go up while simultaneously hanging on; Luke waited, quite patiently, for me on the ground.
I didn't get all the way to the top; the ladder was not fully extended, and I did not go past the platform where a firefighter can stand while trying to rescue someone. I guess I was about 80 feet high or so; on the way down, I counted 77 rungs.
Even going at my slow pace was exhausting. My knees felt weak. I was suddenly quite tired. Even as I reached the lower rungs, I still felt like I was much higher. My legs still wobbled a bit as I stood once more on the concrete.
"It wears you out," said Luke.
As I thought of my experience on the ladder, I realized that compared to the firefighter who climbs it, I had a much easier journey. I had only my camera around my neck. A firefighter would have his helmet and heavy coats, boots and gloves; probably an air tank too. And he would not be leisurely sauntering from rung to rung; he'd be in a big hurry.
Conditions would be different, as well. The weather on Wednesday was calm and comfortable. I imagined trying to climb that ladder on a very hot (or very cold) and windy day, while feeling the heat and seeing the smoke from a fire. Vinton did not have its aerial truck in 2005, when the American Legion Hall burned to the ground; an aerial truck from Hiawatha helped save other nearby buildings. I thought of the guy whose photo I took on top of that ladder six years ago.
That trip up and down the ladder was, for me, just a taste of what our firemen do on a regular basis; a glimpse of the physical and emotional challenges they face keeping us safe. It's been nearly 40 years since the fire at Hilda's flower shop, but there are guys in Vinton who clearly remember being injured in an explosion that day.
Among the dozens of deaths in fires in recent years year in Iowa were a man in rural Vinton who died during a grass fire, and a La Porte City convenience store employee who died in a fire at work. While our firefighters and other first responders help to prevent more of these tragedies, they are also the ones who experience them first-hand.
While climbing this ladder, I realized again just how much our firefighters -- who volunteer and give up their time with their families hours each month for training as well as for fighting fires -- are doing to keep us safe.
You don't need to climb a ladder to appreciate what those guys and gals do for us. But you can't climb that high without gaining more appreciation for firefighters.
This column is one of the chapters in Dean's first e-book, called, "Turtle Soup for the Vegan Soul." Click HERE for ordering information.
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