What It’s Like to Face the Fire

Read our guest post from Wendy Howe, Department of Homeland Security, Director of the Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Communications and Outreach Division


Members of S&T’s communications team recently spent a brisk morning at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), but we did not feel cold for very long on that chilly day—we started off with a warm welcome by the MFRI administration and instructors and before we knew it, we were dressed in firefighting turnout gear and in a small room facing a real fire in a training scenario.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that MFRI is one of the premier fire training facilities in the United States. It is responsible for training all the firefighters in the state of Maryland that work in jurisdictions that do not have a dedicated fire training academy.

They also train a large percentage of the military’s firefighting personnel and travel around the world to assist first responders in other countries with training and ongoing education. On this day in early December, these dedicated career responders offered our team a taste of what they and countless others experience every day when lives are on the line.

S&T has a very close and long-standing relationship with first responders and has, from its very inception, designed and created technology solutions to make their jobs easier and safer.


During our visit, S&T staff first suited up in heavy-duty, fire-resistant pants, jackets, boots, gloves and helmets. The firefighting gear was essential to protect our team while they were running through training exercises. Each person was given a Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), which consisted of an air tank with a harness and a full-face mask.

Each harness also held a motion sensor that triggers an alarm if the wearer stops moving. This sensor alerts firefighters in darkened smoke-filled structures that a fellow firefighter is motionless and may be incapacitated and helps them locate their colleague by following the piercing sound. We were taught to continually rock and sway our hips to keep the alarms silent.

After the instructors checked the fit and function of each SCBA, they led the team into a small room, shut the door, and proceeded to set a wooden pallet covered with wood shavings ablaze. As temperatures rose to 1,000 degrees and the room filled with smoke, the equipment we were wearing was quite literally keeping us alive.

We also deployed hoses, learned about the work done by emergency medical technicians, and navigated our way on hands and knees in complete darkness through obstacle courses filled with the debris found in a building on fire.

We came away with an incredible appreciation for the challenges firefighters face each day in the line of duty. Thank you to the fantastic group of dedicated professionals at MFRI for giving us a peek into your world.


All photos courtesy of S&T