PORTLAND, Ore. - For a lot of kids, and even many adults, there is a sense of awe about firefighters. After all, they wear cool uniforms, they get to ride in big, red fire trucks and they are often considered heroes in the community.
There is a place in Portland, though, that takes us beyond all the glitz and glamour (so to speak) of the profession to give us a true picture of the life of firefighters and the world they live in.
That place is the Historic Belmont Firehouse at Southeast 35th Avenue and Belmont Street. It's there that you can sit in the cab of a fire truck to see what it's like to respond to an emergency, listen in on a simulated 9-1-1 call, take a look at the many tools of the trade that firefighters use and go on a tour of Portland's firefighting history.
"What we've tried to create is an interactive experience, a multi-sensory experience," Don Porth with Portland Fire & Rescue told us when we stopped by to explore the museum and find out what they do there. "Like the fire engine - when you climb in there, there's a sense of motion and sound and feel and all of those things are part of the experience."
Folks who visit can even try their hand at sliding down a fire pole, arguably one of the most popular activities at the firehouse (seriously - who doesn't want to slide down a fire pole?).
According to Scott Goetchius, Public Education Officer for Portland Fire & Rescue, it's not as easy as you might think - there actually is a technique to it.
Goetchius was guiding a tour for a group of children from Sacajawea Head Start while we were there. When they got to the fire pole part of the tour, he first demonstrated the proper way to slide down one and then gave the kids (and the adults in the group) a chance to try it for themselves.
"People learn and retain information better when you engage more than one physical sense," Porth told us. "We have to be careful because all of these things are real firefighter tools and equipment, so we closely monitor visits. But the closer we can get people to the reality of what we are and what we do, the more engaging the whole experience is."
Part of the idea behind creating a place like this was simply the desire to take firefighting equipment and artifacts that were stored away where no one could see them and put them in a visible place where they could provide a learning opportunity.
"It really creates a natural curiosity to people about 'what is all of this?' " said Porth. "We've had the stuff around for years but it's been tucked away in a windowless room, unavailable to anybody. So we just put it in a room with windows."
"What we've essentially tried to create is an interpretive center," Porth told us. "Not a museum, but a way to interpret our history and our purpose in the community."
The firehouse also serves as a place where firefighters can reinforce their safety messages with a captive audience.
"What if we could have people come spend an hour with us in this building rather than us go spend an hour with them at their home? That's sort of the basic premise," Porth said.
And parents are their main focus.
"Probably 80 to 85 percent of our visitors are adults with children," Porth said. "And they're interested in the world of the fire service. They don't understand it, they haven't had good access to it, it's a real curiosity and that's what brings them in. Now that's our opportunity because young kids are one of our highest risk groups for fire injury and death. But their safety isn't really in their control. Whose control is it in? The parents."
So what are some of the messages that firefighters try to get across?
One involves escape ladders - those roll-up ladders you can hang from a window. Porth said he often warns parents not to let an escape ladder can give them a false sense of security.
Well, just take a moment and think about what using an escape ladder entails. First of all, you're scared, you're panicked, flames are bearing down on you and smoke is restricting your breathing. Amid all of that you've got to get to a window, get it open, get the screen out of the way and deploy the ladder. And finally there's another fear to face.
"You've got to get your big human body through the window backwards and go straight down the face of the building," said Porth. "Just let your imagination go wild with that for a second. You're already not in the right frame of mind - fire is chasing you out of the window. So imagine the implications of that."
Porth said he once had a lady tell him that her plan in the event of a fire was to have her 7-year-old child carry his 3-year-old sibling on his back down an escape ladder. Not a good plan at all, he said.
"I fear that one day we will see somebody who has great confidence in the ladder that they've never used or taken out of the box," he said. "And they find themselves seriously injured in a heap at the bottom of the ladder because they didn't know how to use it."
Another message, one that we often hear about but some still choose to ignore, is how important it is to have working smoke alarms in your home.
"People with working smoke alarms in their homes don't die in fires," Porth said. "It's really that simple."
Porth said it's all about what people can do to mitigate an emergency before firefighters even get there.
"When we can help people understand the things that they need to do to survive and to help us be successful when we do have to engage our skills, the world's a better place," he said.
Take CPR, for example. Just knowing how to perform it can mean the difference between life and death.
"If somebody doesn't start CPR before we arrive, the likelihood of us saving them is so low," Porth said. "If we save somebody it's virtually always because somebody began CPR before our arrival."
For Porth, the true heroes are the people who jump into action before emergency responders even arrive.
"The hero is the person that got the job going and went far beyond their normal expectation on that day," he told us. "We're there doing our job as we should and as we're trained to do to continue it from there."
If You Go
The Historical Belmont Firehouse opens its doors the second Saturday of the month (excluding July, August and December) for public drop-ins. It's called 'Safety Saturday' and the hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The next one is coming up on May 14. Safety Saturdays are free but donations are gladly accepted.
All other days are by private tour only. The tours are free but donations are gladly accepted. You can call (503) 823-3615 to schedule a time.
The firehouse is also available for rental with the fees benefiting the non-profit Jeff Morris Fire & Life Safety Foundation. You can schedule time for a dinner party, birthday party, anniversary party or any other event you can dream up - even a wedding. To inquire about reserving the firehouse for an event call (503) 823-3615 or send an email to Don Porth.