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Dodgeball for firefighters

Volunteers practice breath control by playing in full gear

Members of various local volunteer fire departments play dodgeball in full turnout gear in the Citizen Advocates gymnasium in Saranac Lake Friday evening. (Provided photo — Eva Stinson)

SARANAC LAKE — On Friday evening, members of five local fire departments were engaged in a fierce fight — not with a fire, but with each other.

Instead of their usual tools — hoses, axes and ladders — they were chucking foam balls at each other, playing dodgeball.

It was a strange sight to see. Firefighters from the Saranac Lake, Lake Placid, Bloomingdale, Paul Smiths-Gabriels and Duane volunteer fire departments packed into the gymnasium of the Citizen Advocates building (the former St. Pius X Catholic high school) in Saranac Lake, playing dodgeball in full firefighting gear.

It was a fun way to practice an important skill. It was an air consumption drill, teaching members breath control and oxygen conservation.

“It helps build confidence for them in case they’re in a situation where their TAS alarm goes off and they’re either trapped or they need a little more time to get out of a burning building,” Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department Second Assistant Chief Doug Peck said.

Peck organized and participated in the drill. He said he saw departments near Plattsburgh use dodgeball to get their hearts and lungs racing, and he liked the idea.

“You can sit there in the classroom all day long and breathe the bottle down, and you’re going to get a lot out of it. But in a fire situation when you’re moving around a lot and the stress is going … this is a more realistic time frame,” he said.

It wasn’t life-or-death on Friday, but the firefighters still took it seriously.

“There was definitely some competition going on,” SLVFD Chief Brendan Keough said. “You know, you get the fire departments together, and there’s always a little bit of competition and a little bit of ribbing back and forth.”

Peck said it is tough to call a winner, since departments were sharing members and switching teams.

“They’re all winners,” Keough said, adding that the skills they learned will benefit them all.

“It is really all about learning the limits of our air supply that we carry into a burning building while under full exertion,” an SLVFD press release says. “While we are not quite sure which fire department won the tournament, we do know the true winner is our community as your first responders are that much more prepared to protect you when called upon to do so.”

The Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad was also on hand to provide emergency medical coverage and take vital signs on each firefighter.

The rules of dodgeball were all the same. Get hit, you’re out. If someone catches your toss, you’re out. If a teammate catches a ball from the other team, you’re back in. Teams on either side of the gym charged toward each other, gathering their soft projectiles before hurrying back to the starting line and taking aim at their opponents.

But there was an extra rule. When the alarm on someone’s compressed air pack went off, letting them know they only had a third or a quarter of a tank left, they’d leave the game, go into another room and breathe down the bottle until it was empty, timing how long that takes.

It’s exhausting, Peck said, to carry 100 to 150 pounds of gear, breathe through a face mask and grab slippery foam balls with firefighting gloves, all while trying not to get beaned in the face. Members were going through tanks meant to last 30 to 40 minutes in 25 to 30 minutes. One firefighter set the record by making a tank last 50 minutes.

How long a bottle lasts all depends on the individual, Keough said, and how well they conserve their air.

To make their oxygen last, they’ve got to practice breath control. Peck said they do this by taking “skip breaths.” Instead of huffing in and out, they breathe in, hold it and then breathe out.

“A lot of the newer members maybe thought they had more time on a bottle, and once you do something like that you realize, ‘Well, I have to learn how to control my breathing,'” Peck said.

At the end of the night, all of them took off their gear and did a free-for-all round just for fun.

“They just piled up in two teams and went for it,” Keough said.

Peck said it was a good way to break the ice after a year missing the camaraderie the departments are used to.

“It was a blast. We wanted people to have fun,” he said. “With COVID going on last year, we weren’t able to do a lot of out multi-department drills. … This is kind of us getting back into our normalcy.”

Photos of the dodgeball drill can be seen at https://bit.ly/3x6PKLd. Videos of the matches can be seen at https://bit.ly/3svHj8D.

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