Firefighting is a grueling job measured in seconds

Fire is no respecter of weather. In summer, firefighters have to battle hot flames in hot temperatures, but they never flinch from duty.

When the fire alarm rang half an hour past midnight on August 15, Dong Songjie and 23 of his fellow firefighters in the Neijiang squad of Yangpu District’s fire brigade jumped out of bed and were ready to go in 60 seconds.

They responded to a fire in the first-floor yard of a residential complex on Yanji Road. The team extinguished the blaze in two hours, with no casualties, and returned to bed at 3:30am. Three hours later they were up to do their daily training routine.

Yangpu fire brigade

Firefighters from the Neijiang squad of Yangpu District’s fire brigade fights fire in a residential complex on Yanji Road M. on the early morning of August 15.

The life of firefighters is not an easy one. They have to be ready at all hours and in all weather to save lives and protect property. Their efficiency is measured in seconds.

“Summer is the ideal season for tactical teams to train with water equipment because if the firefighters get wet, it isn’t as uncomfortable as in winter,” said Fang Hanwen, an official in charge of administrative work at the squadron.

Dressed in their protective gear and equipped with cables, axes and respirator masks – all in all, about 30 kilograms of weight – the firefighters practice operating high-pressure water hoses and scaling highrises.

The firefighters also prepare themselves by practicing use of ladders, scaling them as fast as possible. The squad record is six seconds to carry a six-meter ladder 30 meters, lean it against a wall and climb up to the top.

“Every firefighter has to master all firefighting and rescue equipment, including fire axes, ladders and water hoses,” Fang said. “It takes a lot of training and practice drills, not to mention experience at the scene of fires.”

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

A firefighter of the squad trains at ladder climbing.

When a fire alarm rings, firefighters wherever they are – even if in the shower – have to spring to action within a minute. Once in the fire engines, they listen to unit leaders explain the task ahead from initial reports.

Dong, 23, is assistant leader of a squad unit after four years on the job. He has been out on calls more than 1,000 times with his team.

In a fire incident, his unit is responsible for inspecting the scene quickly, reporting back what is happening and tackling a fire with available means until backup arrives.

Dong’s fire engine smells of smoke because it arrives ahead of others and parks closest to the fire. In hot weather, the sensation of something burning in the engine cabin is most pungent.

“When we are at our busiest in summer, I have to change my uniform three times a day because it gets so soaked in sweat,” he said.

Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Dong Songjie, a firefighter of the squad, checks respirator masks in his fire engine.

Dong’s job requires a calm, analytical mind – the ability to “see” things clearly in sometimes blinding smoke.

“The first priority is to save lives and avoid property damage as much as possible,” he said.

Ma Guangqing, 35, is assistant chief of the squadron, with 16 years of experience. As an elite member on the squad, he is often entrusted with the job of heading into a fire with a water gun.

“When there’s heavy smoke, we look for fire by following the light and feeling the temperature,” he said. “The fear of something unknown can be overwhelming, but we have to brave and not let it get to us.”

Apart from fires, these men also have to answer emergency calls, such as people threatening to commit suicide, people trapped under cars in traffic accidents, people trapped in elevators, and even people who can’t wrench a ring off a finger. Firefighters can be called out to save pets and remove hornets’ nests.

There are 45 firefighters at this squadron, aged 18 to 35. Most of them were originally from out of town. Depending on number of years of service and marital status, they get 20 to 45 days of paid leave annually.

Fang said a resident unknown to the fire station brought a few watermelons as gifts on August 1, China’s Army Day. In China, firefighters are recruited as soldiers.

“The resident’s thank-you gesture was appreciated,” Fang said. “It reminded us of the importance of our duty to use our skills to save lives and protect society.”

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