The impossible challenge


It was a hairy situation. The challenge seated before me was daunting at best. Though it should’ve been simple, it was anything but. In my hands I held the key to success or abject failure. There was no in-between this day.

During my 27 years as a firefighter, there was one constant in the unpredictable nature of our job – training. Training for any and all emergency situations kept your mind sharp and your body ready for the unexpected. Whether it is responding to a three-story cotton warehouse fire, a gasoline tanker truck explosion, or a natural gas leak forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents, training is what enables firefighters to do their jobs. But no amount of fire department training could prepare me for the reality now staring me right in the face.

Fire hoses are under tremendous pressure in order to send the volume of water necessary to extinguish fire. When the bell handle on the nozzle is pulled and water starts to flow, the hose thrashes about like a huge snake. Sometimes it takes three or more fire fighters holding down the hose in order to direct the water stream to the base of the fire.

I was alone with my task, and it was moving more than the biggest fire hose I had ever tried to hold on to during my career. A quick glance around the room showed there was no one in sight. If called, no additional backup would be coming to my rescue. The struggle was mine alone and became more intense as I continued in vain with my task.

As a firefighter, I had never dropped any equipment, but this situation was different than any I had experienced in all of those years.

As the struggle continued, equipment was knocked out of my hands, and no matter how quickly I retrieved them, they were quickly knocked out again. The task seemed impossible, the objective unattainable. Determined not to give up, I continued.

With the correct tools, firefighters can cut an entire car to pieces in minutes to free trapped patients. Weight-tested ropes enable firefighters to rescue trapped climbers off cliff faces, workers trapped deep in mines, or drivers from the bottom of muddy culverts. As a firefighter, I always believed that with the correct training and correct tools we could do just about anything.

But I was wrong. The proof was sitting, or I should say, wiggling, right in front of me. I had the correct tools, and some training, but still couldn’t get task accomplished.

As a firefighter, we learn when water is heated, it converts into steam and expands to over 1,700 times its original volume. This change enables the steam to absorb the heat, cooling and ultimately extinguishing the fire. Never once in all of my fire training did my officer explicitly state water sprayed out of a hand-held bottle could actually turn into acid. The screaming coming from in front of me proved such a thing indeed seemed possible.

Finally, knots are all important in the fire service. We use rope to secure areas and knots to secure rope. A quickly tied knot can be used to hoist tools to a roof or lower a rescuer down a muddy embankment. Many books about knots have been written that include detailed illustrations on how to tie them. I’ve read many and practiced tying hundreds of knots for hours, but none of that knowledge helped me with the daunting task now in front of me.

Trust me, weaving a French braid in the hair of our wiggling 3-year-old granddaughter is not as easy as the book on hair leads one to believe. And no, the spray bottle of water didn’t really turn into acid, but the way she was screaming when she was sprayed sure sounded like it did.

Happy Fathers Day to all.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog:]