The event reaffirms several things I’ve long suspected.

The first thing you notice is the weight of the steel-plated leather boots. Six, seven pounds apiece, safe against four-digit heat, the Haix firefighter boots force you to shuffle. Next, you tug on your turnouts, pants and a jacket, three heavy layers to protect you from chemicals, carcinogens and flame. You commence sweating even before you pull on the Nomex flame-resistant hood and helmet.

By time you shoulder the oxygen tank – 40 pounds heavier than when you started Saturday morning – you can sense the physical toll firefighting takes. And that’s hours before you visit the flashover chamber, where blasts of 1,200-degree flame roll over you.

Fire Operations 101, this half-day academy is called. Staffed by firefighters from Goodyear and Glendale – volunteering to give business leaders, elected officials and one perspiring newspaperman a taste of life on the front lines – the event reaffirms several things I’ve long suspected.

Firefighting is one part athleticism, one part Zen awareness under extreme conditions and one part service above self. It is a calling for those who don the gear. And fire, when you sense its killing ferocity through your turnouts, will leave you as vulnerable as a grown man can feel.

Oh. Also, firefighting isn’t only about fire. It’s about hustling to 10 or 20 calls across a 24- or 48-hour shift, the buzzer going off at 3 a.m. and hitting snooze never an option.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that all we do is fire,” says Goodyear Captain Patrick Doyle, the father of four little blonde girls. “In the Valley, specifically in Goodyear, we’re your fire department, emergency medical department, hazardous materials department, paramedics. We do cats in a tree. … Unless someone has a gun, people call the fire department.”

Fire Ops 101 includes five stations. “Search and rescue” involves using a Halligan bar and a sledgehammer to bust into a house. Then you tote in fire hose and carry out a victim overcome by smoke. During extrication, you wield the “jaws of life” to rip the doors off an old Buick. The car crash station involves your four-person crew unleashing a massive jet of water on a vehicle shooting head-high flames. At the EMS station, you do CPR chest compressions until your triceps scream. Then there’s the flashover chamber, a pitch-black room the size of a doublewide full of claustrophobia and smoke.

For seven years, I’ve worked with Arizona’s firefighters, helping handle their communications needs. We’ve stood shoulder to shoulder in political hearings, interviews, funerals, charity events. They’re like family. But never have I respected these thousands of men and women more than I did experiencing 1,200 degrees up close.

Some politicians and journalists crusade against public safety pay and retirement benefits. They view firefighters and cops as dollars on a spreadsheet. The only other time they consider public servants like Pat Doyle is to request an endorsement or peddle some sensationalized “investigation.” Personally, I think public safety work taxes those who do it more than we can imagine – even after a day walking in their heavy boots. Because Fire Ops 101 is only pretend.

“I sometimes wish I could let the (critics) see what it’s like to hold a drowning baby being surrounded by their entire family,” says Goodyear Capt. Stephen Gilman. “Or to see some of their best friends get cancer at the age of 32. Or to see some of their friends come away with severe burns.”

Capt. Gilman looks you in the eye. “I think if they realized some of these things we go through … I don’t think they’d be as quick to judge that this job is easy or the pension is too big.”

– David Leibowitz has called the Valley home since 1995. Contact david@leibowitzsolo.com.