AUBURN — For years, Auburn Fire Department Chief Jeff Dygert has fought for a program to give people a taste of what it takes to be a firefighter. 

The program — Fire Ops 101 — was founded by the International Association of Fire Fighters as a way to let elected officials experience a fire firsthand and spend "a day in their boots." 

And for a handful of officials in Cayuga County, that day was Oct. 8. 

Saturday morning, Auburn city councilors James Giannettino, Jr., Terrence Cuddy, Debra McCormick and Dia Carabajal and Cayuga County Administrator Suzanne Sinclair geared up for a day of exercises at the Cayuga County Fire Training Center in Auburn.

After a few welcoming remarks from Dygert — who has served more than 20 years in the fire department and was elected Auburn city manager last week — and Auburn Fire Department Local 1446 President Lt. Brian Donovan, several local firefighters helped the five officials step into their shoes, putting on a full fire uniform and air pack which respectively cost about $2,000 and $6,000 a piece.

"On a daily basis we only use 14 or 15 (air packs) at a time," Dygert said, noting that the department currently has 53 air packs on hand. "But when we have a multiple-alarm fire or packs are out of service, there are times when we don't have enough packs for every firefighter." 

And that, he said, is dangerous as firefighters are more susceptible to cancer-causing chemicals and conditions now than ever before. 

"If you look at a photo of a fire back in the 1980s, most of the smoke was gray or brown," Dygert said. "Now it's black smoke that contains all sorts of toxins ... now firefighters can literally take a breath or two of smoke and be rendered unresponsive. So these air packs are really important to us now." 

As a result, each official was given an air pack to try during the day's training, which began in the center's so-called burn building.

After a quick walk-through of the building, which consists of two floors and an attic, the officials split up into two teams. The first team — Giannettino and Sinclair — learned how to connect the hose to a nearby fire hydrant while team two — Cuddy, McCormick and Carabajal — stretched the hose into the building, spraying water on a fire that was simulated by a simple fog machine.

Next, both teams participated in a search and rescue scenario in which each official had to extend a ladder to the roof of the building, carry tools up the ladder and search for a victim in a smoke- and fog-filled environment, something all of the officials found challenging. 

"I was terrified," Carabajal said. "I had to focus on the fact that I wasn't in there alone... and it was very hard to concentrate on simple instructions. I really had to struggle to just be able to reach across in front of me and press a button on my radio." 

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"It didn't matter if I had my glasses on or not," Cuddy added, laughing. "You can't see anything. And even though I did a walk-through (of the building) before, I still didn't know where things were. I was completely lost." 

For McCormick, that was the worst part. 

"It's like being blind," she said. "You just can't see what you're doing." 

And as firefighter Justin Wood pointed out, it wasn't even a real fire. 

"Keep in mind, these burn rooms can get up to 900 degrees," he said. "But we're not using heat (for Fire Ops 101). We're not crawling on our hands and knees to stay below the smoke and there are no obstacles in there, no couches or chairs or mattresses blocking our way. That all makes it a lot harder in a real fire." 

Later, the lesson continued as both teams had to work together to use heavy lifesaving tools to extricate a victim from a car. And lastly, all officials were given the chance to witness a "burn pod" filling with furnishings, a scenario to show how fast a fire may ignite due to the contents and materials used to make modern furniture. 

"You will never see gray or brown smoke ever again," Dygert said. "Not with the chemicals they use today." 

And in the end, after nearly eight exhausting hours in the shoes of a firefighter, all officials seemed glad to have participated in the program. 

"I thought it was really, really interesting," Sinclair said. "I had no idea how physically and mentally challenging it could be."

"Let's just say I'm really happy I'm a math teacher," Carabajal added, laughing.

The fire department was also happy with their first Fire Ops, which will likely become an annual event across the board, Dygert said. 

"Hopefully in my new role (as city manager) we'll try to do this throughout all of the city departments so that the public, the media and the council have a good look behind the scenes at what really goes on in some of the departments," he said. "It's an opportunity for us to kind of show our story... and give people a better idea of what's going on throughout the city." 

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Staff writer Megan Blarr can be reached at (315) 282-2282 or megan.blarr@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @CitizenBlarr.