As city leaders and community members emerged from a smoke-filled room slightly dazed Friday morning, they also had fresh insight into the work of Waco firefighters.

“I wanted to gain even more appreciation for what they do, what they need and how tough it is with all the gear they have to wear,” Waco Assistant City Attorney Judith Benton said as she stood decked out in firefighting equipment for the day. “This is a little outside my comfort zone. Putting on a lot of stuff and going into a hot box, I would think that this is not something sane people do, so I am a little nervous.”

Benton, who has overseen legal responsibilities for the Waco Fire Department for seven years, joined almost 20 other city staffers, elected officials and media members for a Fire Ops 101 course put on by the Waco Professional Firefighters Association Local 478 at the McLennan Community College Emergency Services Education Center.

“We want to reach the most amount of people we can to explain the stresses of our job and to give everyone an inside look at the fire department,” Local 478 Vice President Phillip Burnett said. “Simple stresses can come from calls, emotional stress, but it is also a physical stress, and that is what we want to show people today.”

Firefighters guided the group through three exercises: a search and rescue in a dark room filled with simulated smoke, a vehicle extrication, and a demonstration in a flashover room with a real fire and an instructor walking through the stages of the blaze, including the deadly “flashover,” when particulate matter suspended in smoke ignites.

“I hate smoke,” said Tisha Wallace, a University High School senior and representative for Waco District 2 Councilwoman Alice Rodriguez. “I want to be a firefighter, and this is so interesting to me. I’ve never done anything like this before, but I really like helping people.”

Wallace took a swing at breaking away a vehicle’s window during the extrication exercise. Then she and others cut away the car’s doors and roof using hydraulic cutters and spreaders to demonstrate the procedures to safely remove trapped victims in a vehicle crash.

“The majority of what we do are EMS calls and respond to car wrecks, so everyone gets to hold equipment and cut a car open,” Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum said. “In the search and rescue operation, they will get to use some of our equipment and technology we use to go in and search for a victim. Firefighters’ equipment is very expensive, but the participants will see the benefit of that equipment.”

Thermal cameras made it possible to see the simulated victim through a dark room filled with simulated smoke. The cameras also help firefighters identify hotspots that linger after fires appear extinguished to the naked eye.

The group spent about seven hours speaking with Local 478 members, going through the physical labors of the simulations and taking in a slice of the knowledge firefighters use during routine calls. Tatum said more than 100 firefighters die every year in the line of duty, but he hopes every participant understands the importance and dedication of local firefighters.

“Knowledge replaces fear, so if you go into an unknown environment, there is a fear factor involved. But our firefighters are better trained, and seconds can save lives,” Tatum said. “We are glad to show everyone how and what we use to do our job for the community.”