Damp from sweat, soot smeared beneath his eye, Anne Arundel County Council Chairman Derek Fink tried to regain his composure as smoke poured from a burning building at the county's fire training center.
"I knew it was going to be tough, but this is 10 times harder than I thought," Fink said.
Moments earlier, Fink and Councilman Peter I. Smith were each outfitted with 55 pounds of fire gear, crawling on their hands and knees beneath black smoke, searching for a dummy hidden among the flames.
"It made me appreciate the shortage of manpower they have," Smith said. "When me and Derek were going through that building looking for people, it wasn't enough. You just need more people."
County firefighters, frustrated by forgone raises and cuts to their workforce, staged a "Fire Ops 101" program Friday morning to bring decision-makers face-to-face with the daily experience of fighting fires.
"I'm not going to kid you, I'm not going to coddle you," Division Chief Keith Swindle told the lawmakers in the morning. "We're going to put you out, just like you were in fire school."
By midway through the five-hour exercise, lawmakers had sat in a closed room as flames crawled up the wall and danced across the ceiling at the live-burn building in Millersville. They hauled 200 feet of hose up two flights of stairs, extinguished a blaze and smashed windows. Council Vice Chairman Jerry Walker had ripped the door off a Plymouth with the "jaws of life."
"Don't tap out! Don't tap out!" Craig Oldershaw, president of the firefighter union that organized the event, teased Fink, who took a long swig of water and promised he would stick it out.
"You know, it's one thing for us to go down to the council and talk," Oldershaw said. "It's a different thing to put on the gear and get out there."
While Friday's exercise marked Anne Arundel County's first effort to introduce politicians to fire training, it follows jurisdictions across the country that launched the program designed by the International Association of Fire Fighters. This year, firefighters have hosted politicians in Omaha, Neb., Memphis, Tenn., and Denver. In May, Howard and Prince George's county executives, along with some other elected officials, completed a "Fire Ops 101" in College Park.
On Friday, each lawmaker was paired with a veteran firefighter who ensured safety and could explain the struggles of contemporary firefighting: how today's plastics and big-screen televisions create more smoke than ever; how eliminating a second set of gear sometimes means fighting fires in drenched equipment that doesn't ward off the heat; and how budget cuts have sapped morale.
"At first, people understood the economy was bad," Capt. Chuck Jester told Smith as they waited for a turn to extinguish another fire. "But now it's hard. And then you see that Anne Arundel County is one of the richest in the country. That wears on you."
Smith nodded and later said something has to be done about firefighter pay scales. "There should be a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Fire Chief John Robert Ray said that to help balance the budget, the county cut 75 vacant jobs in the Fire Department, enough to eliminate a shift of firefighters. For now, the county has been paying overtime to fill the vacant spots.
He watched as the lawmakers and members of the media emerged from the burn building covered in ash, sucking in air into their lungs and trading observations about how the darkness inside seemed consuming.
"It gives them the perspective of what our folks are going through," Ray said. "People see the movies, and it's nothing like that."
Lt. Shawn Jones, a 17-year firefighter, said the training operation still lacks the intensity of a real house fire.
"The one thing we can't re-create is the sound — the creaking, the cracking," Jones said. "Every time you hear that noise, you know it's the building failing."
Chief Administrative Officer John Hammond, who oversees all county departments, arrived just in time for a ribbing from lawmakers, who quizzed him on how many firefighter jobs he planned to put in the budget.
"They can tell you how hot it is, but until you're in that room, you don't know," Fink said during a break. "They say it's dark, but when you're in there, it's black. Everything is soot. You can't see your hand in front of you, and you're just crawling. Until you're in there, you don't know."