Maybe the hardest thing when fighting fire is keeping cool.
As in, a cool head—following trained instincts that direct a firefighter's responses in the right ways.
In the heat and tumult of a fire, a firefighter's responses are critical to human lives, and must be trained and internalized until they're second nature. The instinctive reaction to fire is to flee, and firemen by definition are supposed to run to, not away from, fire.
On a gorgeous Saturday morning in late August, a morning when most dads would be playing ball or fishing with their kids, 10 Hamburg firemen and one from Riverton took part in a training exercise behind the Hamburg fire station.
Brian Hamner, Fire Instructor with the Fire Service Training Bureau of the Iowa Department of Fire Safety, directed the training, one of five instructors from various Iowa towns. Hamner rode down to Hamburg on his Harley from Winterset, near Des Moines.
There were three drills that morning, one simulating a “unilateral” fire and two “bilateral” fires.
In the first fire, also called a “uniflow ventilation” fire, flames follow one path. In a bilateral fire, there are two fires in the same enclosed space.
The drills take place in a specially-equipped semi-trailer, the Interior Fire Attack Simulator (IFAS). Inside the IFAS are a couch and a kitchen stove, simulating obstacles in a house. On the ceiling is a rollover burner that generates the flames. The fires are controlled by an instructor within sight of the students who uses a hand-held remote.
Everyone is wearing full gear, air packs, face masks, and fireproof suits. Every man has interior and exterior audio communication with the others.
In the first exercise, nine students practice fighting a basement fire in teams of three, with two instructors who have the remotes. The teams climb up metal stairs to the roof of the IFAS and cross the length of the trailer to an entrance shed at the front. They open the door and descend an enclosed stairway with their hoses to confront flames shooting out from the far end of the room.
The next two bilateral exercises are trickier. In these, Hamner controls the fire from outside the IFAS. A window is open so he can see what's going on inside and the men can see him.
Fighting a fire begins with a 360-degree inspection of the structure to locate fire hotspots and find a point of entry. The team shoots a “cool down” spray into a window—a straight, thin stream of water—then they break through to clear smoke out from inside, called “hydraulic ventilation.”
In the first bilateral drill, two teams of four firefighters enter the trailer through a door on ground level. Again they face flames shooting up at the end of the room. But this time, as they focus on that fire, another suddenly shoots out over their heads from behind them. They must decide immediately which fire is the greater threat and how to handle it. They cannot let fire get between themselves and their egress.
The second bilateral fire challenges a team of three rookies. Hamner gives the verdict afterward: they did well, but for one miscalculation about the stream of water from the hose.
“They were going back and forth. The last guy had the nozzle down to a pencil. You want to get it opened up” into a fog pattern, said Hamner.
That's because a fog pattern of water is made of many small particles that quickly turn to steam from the heat. Water expands to 1,700 times its size when it turns to steam; a solid stream of water takes longer to expand. But if “you go in there and you have your nozzle in a  fog pattern, if you open it up and do a circle pattern or a T-Z-O pattern, the fire will go out because that water's expanding so quickly it just smothers the fire,” explained Hamner.
“You're taking oxygen away at the same time and you could literally put a fire out with 50 gallons of water,” he said. “That's what we were trying to teach there—to get away from the pencil, and that's why we keep the fire going.
“In their minds, something's wrong. I always teach the guys, if you're trying to put the fire out and nothing's changing, something's wrong,” Hamner said.
Before and after each exercise, the firemen take a break and climb into a rescue vehicle manned by  John Travis, who has been the department's medical officer for six years and was a medic in the US Navy for 20 years before that. Travis checks their vital signs—blood pressure, pulse, etc.—to make sure all are capable of continuing.
This “rehab” is also done at an actual fire, and baseline data for each firefighter are kept on file at the fire department.
The firemen have to watch out for dehydration. On this morning, one man took some time to rehydrate through an IV.
The exercises are done, and just before noon, all gather in the classroom to review the morning's activities. The consensus is that it was a valuable experience. The controlled environment was especially good for the new members of the team. Even for experienced firemen, there are things you forget that need to be reinforced. “I learn something new every time I come (to training sessions),” said one veteran.
Rookie Austin Thompson said he “learned a lot of little things you don't think of (otherwise).”
In the critique, instructors emphasize the importance of going in pairs when fighting a fire. Hamner tells the story of Texas firefighters on a training exercise who noticed upon returning from their lunch break that one person was missing. They found him face down in the restroom. He had died of a heart attack.
As to the importance of such training sessions, instructor Jeremy Douglas summed it up this way: “Essentially, if you feel you don't need the training, you just need to be done with the fire service.”