It is a moment captured in time; a powerful memory made permanent by the intense emotion that accompanied it. A moment that changed the trajectory of my life.
I am sitting front row center in a massive auditorium, eagerly awaiting the four featured speakers, one of which is my particular favorite. I am his biggest fan. My heart pounds with both anticipation and discomfort; anticipation at my husband Mike’s debut as a teacher at FDIC, and discomfort at being the only visible female in the room. I am scrunched tightly into my seat, sandwiched on all sides by muscular, large-framed firefighters who can’t help but crowd me.
I had been watching Mike and his three fellow Seattle firefighters (Phil Jose, Steve Bernocco, and Casey Phillips) develop this class for years. But till now, I’d never actually seen it in its entirety so up-close and personal. It’s on this new topic that seems to have been met with much resistance, even mockery: Air Management for the Fire Service. As is my instinct when I watch my husband struggle, sacrificing himself for something that doesn’t seem to really matter to anyone but him, I wish he would just quit, sparing himself—and me—the agony.
But then it happens, the moment that forever changes my mind. A video clip begins to play of a fire scene involving a large, multi-storied structure that is on fire. Surrounding the building are several fire crews and fire rigs. Black, thick smoke billows into clouds as it streams out of broken windows. The firefighters seated around me visibly perk up; I can feel vibrancy in their posture as they watch the clip. Then suddenly over the din of the constant radio chatter a loud frantic voice cries out, “I’m outta’ air! I’m outta’ air!” My heart stops. It is the most desperate, terrible thing I’ve ever heard.
We listen as this poor firefighter continues his cries for help. He is trapped by fire, pinned down on an upper floor. We can hear him breathe; it is a rasping, horrible gasping sound. Each breath is followed by a soft moan of fear or pain or both. We listen, knowing that every gasp of that noxious, searing toxic black smoke is not only hurting him, but is probably killing him. It is a sound that no firefighter spouse should ever hear.
A lump pains my throat as tears spill from my eyes. I’m embarrassed to be crying in front of all these men; silly weak female. I can’t help myself; that could be my husband; that is someone’s husband. I dare to glance at the row of firefighters seated next to me as I hope they don’t see me crying. Then I notice, to my surprise, that other cheeks are wet with tears. The heart-rending sound of a brother in distress has brought an emotion into the room that is palpable.
The four Seattle Guys go on to speak of the ROAM, or the Rule of Air Management, which is the core of their teaching. The Rule of Air Management states: Know how much air you have in your SCBA and manage that air so that you leave the hazardous environment before your low-air alarm activates.
The ROAM allows firefighters to leave the structure with a bit of emergency air still intact, in case they do, in fact, encounter an emergency on the way out. This reserve air may be the difference between life and death; this reserve air may be the difference between going home to your family or not. And this reserve air may mean the difference between growing old or dying young from cancer. “It is for your loved ones, firefighters,” my husband Mike tells the class, then he looks at me, smiles and winks and says, “I like to call my emergency reserve Annie’s Air.” I blush, I grin, I’m all in.
My firefighter carries a 45-minute bottle of air. But it’s 45 minutes in name only; in reality, with exertion, it’s more like 15-20 minutes. His emergency reserve supply may be 15 minutes—if he’s ‘hunkered down;’ but if he’s huffing and puffing—1 to 5 minutes. It can and does make all the difference in a house fire. But what about larger structures, like the one in the video clip? One to five minutes for my beloved, for the most precious thing in my life? It’s better than nothing, but I wish he had more, so much more life-saving precious air. Nobody values air more than the loved ones of a firefighter.
Flash forward; it’s nearly ten years later. Air Management is now the law of the land, and I’m so grateful it is. I begin to hear bits and pieces of yet another project for my ever-vigilant firefighter. Will he ever rest? This new project is, once again, about air. We fly to San Jose, CA to see this new system, a firefighter air replenishment system or FARS, that has been installed into a multi-storied building. We are shown into what looks to be a janitor’s closet, and I’m speechless. In the room are massive bottles of air—clean breathable air for firefighters.
The system is beyond my technical understanding, but I can appreciate this much; there is enough air here to refill 200 SCBAs at upper floor air fill stations on arrival! As I gaze at those bottles, goosebumps break out on my skin in spite of the heat. Our journey of air management has brought us to this moment, another moment captured in time and made permanent by the intense emotions that accompany it. I hear that desperate voice from so long ago that still haunts me and echoes in my brain, “I’m outta’ air! I’m outta’ air!”
This supply of life-giving air is a symbol of hope, of love. It is Annie’s Air in the amount my firefighter deserves—virtually unlimited. This air will help him come home to me, to our sons, and to our-soon-to-be-born granddaughter who deserves the chance to get to know her wonderful grandfather. And this amount of air is not only Annie’s Air, but Kelly’s Air, Jen’s Air—Mike’s entire crew’s air!
I blush, I grin, I’m all in.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. Her Fire Engineering article “What Every Firefighter’s Spouse Should Know” received rave reviews and began her current journey to help firefighters through a bi-monthly column on Firelife.com. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage. They are co-authoring a book for Pennwell that will highlight the many joys and challenges of love, fun and passion in a firefighter marriage.