Plunging into the smokehouse with St Albans firefighters

Naomi prepares

Naomi prepares - Credit: Archant

Fighting my way through the thick choking smoke, I grapple around helplessly, desperately feeling for my escape.

Naomi exits the smoke house

Naomi exits the smoke house - Credit: Archant

The feeling of an unknown expanse of space yet the walls still closing in on me is all too real as I clumsily trip over unknown objects strewn across the floor, unable to even to see my own hand in front of my face.

But thankfully, despite my alarming surroundings, I am kitted out head to toe in my fire fighter gear, thankful for the heavy breathing apparatus on my back and to hear the voice of the fireman, Chris Lowin, who is guiding me through the smoky maze.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t trapped in a house fire but simply experiencing St Albans fire station’s smoke house – a building that replicates a burning building with simulated smoke and a number of casualties to rescue.

This month, Herts county council’s fire and rescue service is eager to encourage homeowners to plan their escape routes in case of an emergency.

Only two or three breaths of toxic smoke can leave someone unconscious and though a smoke alarm can give people the warning they need to get out of their home, a blocked exit or unfamiliar surroundings can often waste vital time.

Fumbling around the smoke house, weighed down by my 12kg breathing apparatus granting me a full supply of fresh, clean oxygen with enough breathing power for 39 minutes, I am struck by how challenging the firefighter’s role is.

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Unable to see a thing, with my hands firmly on the wall to my right, feeling my way round the room at a snail’s place, all the while aware I should be searching for casualties, I am amazed anyone can do this as their day job.

Dragging the long and heavy hose reel in my left hand behind me, while sweeping my left leg in front of me feeling for obstacles, the biggest challenge is not tripping over it while I try to ascend the stairs.

And though the station’s crew, made of green, blue, white and red ‘watches’, have regular training, they assure me their dexterity is a skill they have to keep on practising.

Firefighter Robby Cooper said: “The weight of the breathing apparatus (BA) was a shock to me at first as you’re also trying to move round in the gear.

“We do BA training a minimum of two times a month and it is invaluable.

“The thing is we go to more car crashes than we do fires so if we don’t do it we get rusty and if I were to miss it and get thrown in after six or seven weeks it would be impossible.

“It is drilled into you but you do get rusty.

“What most firemen say is the main thing is to put on the apparatus, get in, search all the areas for casualties and put the fire out.

“We have to constantly train because it is a skill that you have to practise and develop.”

Though the service does an exceptional job in keeping the county safe, there are certain things people can do to protect themselves, such as making sure they have an escape route in place that is kept clear of obstructions such as toys.

The county council’s member for community protection, Richard Thake, said: “The safety of our residents is paramount.

“The best way to stay safe in the event of a fire is to get out and stay out. The quicker you can get out the less chance of damage from toxic smoke.

“We want to make people aware that property is replaceable and lives are not.

“Our advice is not to tackle the fire, get out of the property, call us and stay out.”

Residents can book a free home safety fire visit to receive advice by visiting or calling 0300 123 4046.