“Frustration comes with knowing you need to perform a rescue operation, but you don’t have the correct PPE.” Emile Conrad shares the challenges of his job as a fire-fighter in George, Western Cape. “Most of the fires we fight are in the wild; veld, forest and mountain, and this means the terrain is treacherous and the conditions are unforgiving, so we rely heavily on our gear to keep us safe.”
Emile never imagined his life’s journey would lead him to fire-fighting, in fact, he had his heart set on carpentry, something which he has a natural talent for. “I grew up and went to school in Atlantis; and I saw myself pursuing woodwork and carpentry as a career.” It was only when South Africa went into recession that Emile was forced to seek an alternative means of income. “My then girlfriend, who is now my wife, worked in the fire services for the City of Cape Town. It was actually one of her colleagues who pushed me to do a fire-fighting course”.
After several attempts to gain employment with the fire services in Cape Town, Emile finally signed a 2-year contract with the Garden Route District Municipality as a fire-fighter and left for George in 2009, and “never looked back”.
George is one of the country’s hardest hit areas when it comes to wildland and bush fires, and fires can rage seemingly unabated for days. When Emile is questioned about what goes through his head when he is thrust into a life or death situation, he chuckles, “You have to know when to push and when to pull back. Strength of mind plays a huge role; of course, this is a very physically demanding job but your mind is your strongest weapon because fear can paralyse you.” Emile’s strength of mind is supported by his lifestyle. As an avid CrossFit athlete, Emile dedicates time off-duty to his fitness and strength training. Fire fighters are normally on duty for 12 hours at a time, and if not out on a rescue, Emile likes to spend his time pushing his limits, “After I won the Toughest Fire Fighter Competition in the Western Cape in 2011, the bug had bitten. The competition went national in 2012, and I placed second – that was a hard pill to swallow and I knew that if I was going to be the best, I had to get serious about my training. I now have my own training rig at home, and when I’m on off-duty, I don my structural firefighting gear with my backpack and do a few circuits.”
Emile went on to win the nationals in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2019, an accolade which bears testament to his rigorous training regime and single-minded approach. He knows that good PPE also gives him the edge, “Wearing my Charnaud fire suit gives me the opportunity to simulate real life rescue situations during my training. A fire suit can weigh between 4 to 6 kilograms depending on the design and the manufacturer, with some suits having one up their competitors when it comes to crucial aspects like breathability and flexibility and this makes a big difference in terms of the time it takes to perform a rescue.”
In 2016 CHARNAUD® came on board to personally sponsor Emile with his own custom-fitted CHARNAUD® FIRE-SAFE® AIR-LITE Bunker Suit. Keen to educate Emile about what sets the CHARNAUD® AIR-LITE Bunker Suit apart, he was invited to tour their factory in KwaZulu-Natal, to see the manufacturing process first-hand and to have his bunker suit custom fitted.
Aside from direct heat exposure, heat stress is a very real challenge for fire fighters as heat builds up inside the suit. The difference between a good and an industry-leading fire suit is its interior membrane. The interior membrane is what enhances the suits ability to disperse heat better, a vital component in this line of work. Emile gives a glimpse into what it is like wearing a fire suit in a structural rescue. “It gets very hot inside your suit. Even if you’ve done it a hundred times, the discomfort never goes away. This is where a strong mind helps, because you know you have to put your discomfort aside for the good of others and in order to perform a rescue. But some suits are better than others; and having had the opportunity to wear the CHARNAUD® AIR-LITE® bunker suit for the last 5 years, has made me realise that the alternative PPE we use doesn’t always meet the same standards.” He continues, “I’m privileged to be able to have CHARNAUD® sponsor me, and now that I’ve had the chance to wear a different kind of suit I can say that the CHARNAUD® suits definitely gives me more – its heat dispersion is better, it’s a lighter suit and its way more flexible. Flexibility in a fire suit is as important as breathability because limited suit flexibility coupled with high heat can cause you to fatigue sooner.”
When asked whether he ever dreams about doing something else with his life, Emile replies, “This is my calling, I realise that now. My wife was in fire services before me, but I never thought I’d end up here. The nature of my job is unpredictable you never know what you’re going to face and that keeps me mentally alert and forces me to stay physically fit; you can say it really tests my limits and exposes my weaknesses. Fear is always there but I lean on my faith, the years of on-the-job experience and having the correct lifesaving PPE to enable me to save lives”.
“We are always talking about how to perform a rescue better and quicker and its true when I say that taking those few extra seconds to put the right PPE on ultimately saves you minutes. The old saying is ‘Training saves seconds, seconds save minutes and minutes save lives’, so wear your PPE.” He ends by explaining how world-class PPE has helped him to claim first place in the SAESI (South African Emergency Services Institute) Combat Challenge in 2017, “This competition is described as the toughest 2 minutes in sport, and I managed to shave 20 seconds off my previous time and to win first place. My CHARNAUD® AIR-LITE® bunker suit definitely contributed to my success.”