Recently, Forge Fire Company member John Parenteau, who joined in December 2022, completed the Firefighter 1 program at the Litchfield County Regional Fire School in Burrville. We asked John to share some of thoughts on fire school, and why he joined the fire service here.


My wife and I recently moved to the area from the west coast, of all places. We are no strangers to living in the country, having both grown up in northern Oregon. While we both spent many years in big cities, we never lost our love for nature and more wide open spaces. I had always been aware of the volunteer fire service. I lived 14 miles out of the closest town as a child, on a gravel road that actually had the Drake’s Crossing Volunteer Fire Department at one end. When I was in high school, I joined a Search & Rescue team organized by the Sheriff’s office in our county, and learned first hand what it was like to put yourself out there for your community.

Me on the nozzle attacking a dumpster fire.

But most of my life was spent in a more corporate world, and in big cities, so the idea of becoming a volunteer fire fighter was distant and unreachable. When we moved out here, one of my neighbors actually suggested, just off hand,that I join, and I thought why not? Honestly, I never expected to do more than help out. But only a month after I joined, our Captain asked me if I wanted to go to fire school. I probably jumped at the opportunity a bit fast, without really asking enough questions. I’m 57 years old, and while I’ve always been athletic and outdoorsy, I hadn’t done much of that beyond the random hike¬† since I was a kid. I quickly began to worry I wasn’t able to handle fire school, especially when the majority of my class were under 25!

School was a challenge, and you definitely have to want to do it. It’s 240 hours of total time, both in the classroom as well as learning physical skills. While I can honestly say it doesn’t take a person in perfect shape, nor do you need to be strong, it is difficult. For me, the challenge wasn’t physical (though I did have my moments where I could actually see my ultimate limits lurking in the near distance), the real test was something more basic. On one of our first weekends you are shown “The Maze”. I remember as a kid being able to climb through tunnels and caves, squeezing myself into tight spaces if only to see what was on the other side. I was fearless. But somewhere between that 15 year old boy and the 57 year old man I had become, I knew I was afraid of enclosed spaces. The Maze is a wood structure designed for fire fighters to crawl through, navigating around and through obstacles in near total darkness. You are not only in full turnout gear, but also wearing an air pack and on air. It was my Everest, and I knew if I could do this (even though every fiber of my body told me “no way!”), I knew I could handle anything.

That’s me helping advanced a charged hose line. You’d never guess how hard it is to force a hose into a building when it’s full of pressurized water!

The maze starts easy, crawling through a four foot by four foot tunnel. But soon enough you turn a corner and suddenly there is a slanted section (mimicking a collapsed ceiling or floor) where you now cannot simply crawl through but have to carefully adjust your body at an angle to accommodate your air pack and gear. Remember, it’s basically completely dark, too, so you’re navigating by touch only. But ok, I got through that one. I slide forward again, round another corner and now there is a thinner vertical section to squeeze through, and you can’t fit with your air pack on. It seems impossibly small, and suddenly the entire space seems to be much too tiny to move at all. By this time my brain was in overdrive. I was in pitch black, not able to go back without having to deal with the slanted section, but not sure I could go forward. It doesn’t sound like much now, but when you are in there it can be overwhelming. At one moment I sat there with my finger on my PASS alarm, a device that would signal loudly that I was in trouble. My finger rested on it, and I felt it. And I took a breath. And I forced myself to move my finger off the button and figure the situation out.

Another tough evolution and one exhausted recruit!

Needless to say, I calmed down and fought off the fear, and instead used logic to work out what I needed to do. Moments later I was past that section. While there were other challenges in the maze, I had turned a corner in my head. I knew nothing would stop me from completing fire school now.

That was the first of many weekends, and many challenges. As I mentioned, I found my limits at times, whether pulling a charged hose line through a burning building, or marching up and down four flights of stairs, over and over, to test my air pack capacity. But I made it, and with each passing weekend I felt a little bit more liberated, knowing I could make it through fire school. 

I know for some their first thought when reading this is, “no thank you!” But it’s a good thing to do stuff out of the box, out of your comfort zone. What else is life for but to learn, to challenge yourself and, in the case of fire fighting, to give back to your community. No matter how hard a challenge like fire school might be, that ability to support my town, my fellow fire fighters, and the surrounding communities makes it all worthwhile. I’ve passed The Maze, and now I’m liberated.

_________________

John Parenteau
Colebrook Fire – Forge Company