A severely damaged Marina District structure, 1989. MarPhoto courtesy of C. E. Meyer, United States Geological Survey

Fire battalion chief Denise Newman explains our four different types of tools. “Here you have your prying and spreading tools – these are axes, pry bars, and car jacks.  And here are your cutting and boring tools – these are axes, saws, bolt cutters. And finally, your striking and battering tools –  axes, sledge hammers, battering rams.

“What do all these have in common?” Silence. A hand goes up. “Axe?”

“AXE! That’s right! Firefighters best friend!”

We are here in this small church meeting room learning how to save lives via actions that would ordinarily be illegal. We  learn how to smash things – with axes and even though it’s barely even started,  it’s quickly becoming clear that this is  the best NERT class of all time.

NERT class has a way of re-igniting long-dormant childhood fascinations.  Real firefighters teach the classes, after all, and it’s hard to imagine another situation where one would get to spend so much time with a childhood hero archetype.

Newman explains that the key to a really good rescue axe is getting one with a point on the top (helps with breaking car windows, and taking out door locks). Also key: not keeping it too sharp. You don’t want the blade to get stuck in whatever you’re chopping.

How do you break glass?  Stand to one side, and strike it sharply at the top with a long-handled tool. You’ll want to get all of the glass out of the frame. Especially the glass on the bottom, so that people don’t cut themselves while escaping. If you’re in a hurry, throw a blanket across the bottom edge.

What if you’ve got a wood door?  Use the axe to punch out a space around the lock. If you’ve got a metal door – well, there’s drywall all around it, right? Just put your axe through the drywall (doing your best to steer clear of any electrical wiring). “What I like,” says Newman, “is being trapped in the room and breaching the door. There’s usually about 16 inches between the studs. Moving from one room to another. I LOVE doing that.”

That said, she informs the class: try the doorknob. “I know you don’t want to. But just try the door, before you break it down.”

The Cathedral Hill Hotel on Van Ness, the Captain says, is going to be demolished, and the owners just gave the fire dept access to do training there.  She plans to smash through a lot of walls. “And it has metal doors!” she says, with the tone of someone who is fairly sure they are getting a pony for their birthday.

Newman tells the class about a fire that she fought once where the doors were metal and the hinges were on the inside. “We had to raise a fifty foot ladder up to the window, and by the time we had to put out that fire it had set fire to the roofs of six neighboring buildings.”

She pauses. “I have to be careful what I say. But sometimes you’re just like ‘That was a GOOD fire.’

And your friends are like, ‘You are horrible.’ But what you mean is:  ‘I was really working.’ That fire was the most unsatisfying fire that I’ve ever been to.”

Some firefighters are more engaging than others – Newman is one of the latter. The class looks at Newman like  they wish her nothing but the best fires, forever. At break time, they will surround her and ask questions that they have clearly been storing for years, like “Do they still use those big trampolines to catch people when they are trapped in high apartment buildings and have to jump? (No, says Newman. People had a hard time landing on them, and if they did, they tended to bounce out again anyway.)

Part of search and rescue, it turns out, is knowing when to search. If a building has large cracks around the doors and foundation, maybe not. If you do search it, and find injured people, carry them outside before treating them. If the building is leaning off its foundation, stay away. Shut off its utilities, if such a thing can be done safely.

Another illegal thing that can be justified with disaster: spray-painting. Those cryptic messages most of us know from images of searched homes after the levees broke in New Orleans are exactly what we’ll see in San Francisco after a major earthquake.

One slash means that a building has been entered, not left. A full “X” means that a building has been searched. A box around the “X” means that the building is dangerous, and the results of the search (number found injured, number found dead) are written below the “X.” The key, says Newman, is to say safe. “Rescuers do not  become rescued!” she bellows. “You do not become part of the problem!”

An unexpected problem with rescue, says Newman, is stuff. Many people, she warns, will not be interested in leaving their homes. “Loma Prieta was the first major earthquake of our generation. We didn’t know how to react when people refused to leave their houses and their stuff.”  If they want to stay, she says, let them.

But most importantly, she warns “Don’t say ‘NERT here! To rescue you!’Because they’re going to hear “Nerds! Nerds coming to rescue you! And think ‘Oh great, a bunch of nerds.’

Say ‘Rescue Team!’”

Disaster Training, Part 1: What to Have on Hand

NERT Disaster Training, Part 2: Gas, Fires Rescues

NERT Disaster Training, Part 3: Triage

NERT Disaster Training, Part 4: Searches, Rescue, Axes.

Keep coming back and if you haven’t already, support Mission Local’s reporting. If you have, thank you.

Follow Us

Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Thanks Heather, great last line. Can’t wait to take the class.

    votes. Sign in to vote
Leave a comment
Please keep your comments short and civil. Do not leave multiple comments under multiple names on one article. We will zap comments that fail to adhere to these short and very easy-to-follow rules.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *