DUNEDIN — Sopping in sweat, physically exhausted and nauseated, I called my editor.
"Do you know what a breathe down drill is?" I gasped.
It's a question we should have asked before accepting Dunedin Fire Marshal Bill McElligott's invitation to get a twaste of how firefighters train for their jobs. All my editor knew was that the activity might mess with my oxygen flow.
"I love it!" she said when I pitched the idea.
The annual drill is part of a national initiative called "Everyone Goes Home." The program focuses on preventing on-the-job firefighter deaths and injuries.
For three years, the North County Training Group — which includes Dunedin, Palm Harbor, Tarpon Springs, Safety Harbor, East Lake and Oldsmar fire departments — have participated in the training.
For this drill, firefighters and an intrepid (read: foolish) reporter had to complete a series of tactical exercises until their air packs ran out.
Or, in my case, until you physically give out.
The course was set up in an abandoned tire shop. It teaches firefighters how to regulate the amount of air they consume while simulating activities done during a fire.
The air bottles used by the Dunedin Fire Department hold 3,000 pounds per square inch, or psi. It's supposed to last about 30 minutes because the average person uses 100 psi a minute at rest. The number rises when physical activity is added.
"You'll be fine," assured a Times photographer. "Anyway, the hospital is right across the street."
Tim Riley went first to demonstrate the drill. Coincidentally, he was sworn in later that day as division chief of training. His last challenge before his promotion was to make sure this reporter lived to make her deadline.
The drill is done in full gear. It's hot and heavy, more than 80 pounds of extra weight. Riley's breathing sounded like Darth Vader. His face was red and sweaty.
I resisted the temptation to flee to the safety of my office.
The agility drill began easily enough. I grabbed softballs resting on top of traffic cones, passing the ball from one gloved hand to the next and placing it on the opposite cone. Then I climbed a ladder.
I mentioned the gear weighs 80 pounds, right?
After the ladder, I threw a sand-filled hose over my body and trudged forward to a cone.
From there I stood straddled over a platform and used a sledgehammer to push a heavy metal sled. It didn't move very far.
"Pretend it's your editor," someone yelled.
More demanding than the metal editor was a 200-pound bag or "victim" I was supposed to drag on the floor a certain distance.
That didn't move very far either.
"Go on a diet," I yelled to the bag.
I thrust a metal pole over my head a dozen times, simulating pulling down a ceiling using a pike pole, and crawled through a tube dubbed "the tunnel of love." Twice I carried a coiled hose from one table to another.
One lap complete.
With each lap my breathing and my boots got heavier. The 200-pound victim moved less each time. On my third lap I wanted to collapse but there were firefighters watching and I didn't want to wimp out.
I did that after my fourth lap.
I didn't totally bomb. In 19.49 minutes I went through four laps and my consumption rate was 90.9 psi a minute. Firefighters in my age group (20 to 26) average 136 psi a minute and 5.5 laps.
Kudos to the more experienced firefighters. Those in the 47 to 51 age group average 106 psi a minute and 8.2 laps.
But to really understand what firefighters go through I'd have to add darkness, smoke, heat, unfamiliar territory and fire to the equation.
I went away from the drill with an even deeper respect for firefighters.
I also learned to block McElligott's e-mails.
Tamara El-Khoury can be reached at (727)445-4181