SAN LEANDRO — Responding to emergencies. Handling traffic accidents. Helping transport victims to the hospital. Searching for and rescuing people. Yes, firefighters do more than put out fires.

Local elected officials and members of the media learned that firsthand Saturday by walking in a pair of firefighters' boots — and turncoats, helmets, masks, gloves and other heavy equipment — through Fire Ops 101. The program, put on by the Alameda County Fire Fighters Association and Alameda County Fire Department, was held at the training center on Lola Street, just off Davis Street. It was designed to place participants in controlled situations to gain a better understanding of what those riding on the big red engines do for a living, said John Torres, firefighters association president. "We want them to get in and see exactly what we do," he said.

Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, called it a "sobering experience." "Everything we did showed that four firefighters are needed," he said, referring to an ongoing debate on whether a fire engine should be staffed with three or four firefighters. "It is critical they have full staffing because without it we are putting the victims and firefighters at risk."

The 10 participants were split into teams and made their way into five scenarios. This reporter was part of the "White" team, which included Torrico, Brian Dinsmore of KPIX Channel 5 and Robert Souza of the Castro Valley Forum newspaper. The group first was tasked to help safely remove a victim out of a car accident by stabilizing the vehicle and using tools like the Jaws of Life extrication device to gain access to the victim. It was an eye-opening experience for Diana Souza, a San Leandro City Council member, who like many participants had no idea that tools used to rescue people from car accidents can get outdated quickly with the constant new designs of vehicles. "Manufacturers of cars should get in touch with firefighters and others charged as first responders to these emergencies so that they can have the most up to date equipment," she said.

After removing the person trapped in the car, the team then transported the victim to the emergency medical service station. Here, firefighters provided treatment, which can include performing CPR, until an ambulance arrived and transported the victim to a hospital. About 80 percent of all calls are emergency medical service-related, officials said.

Next came a ventilation scenario. Participants climbed 100 feet on a fire engine ladder and broke through roofs using a chain saw and a large hammer. Then, as one firefighter put it, the fun came. Taking turns and aided by firefighters in front and behind, participants — equipped with oxygen tanks and masks — went into a smoke-filled building and extinguished a blaze by firing a water hose.

The last scene had the team go into another smoke-filled, pitch-black building to find and rescue a person by using thermal imaging cameras. Many participants were left with a newfound appreciation for what firefighters do daily. "We hear all these stories about fires, but you can't get a real feel until you actually put the gear on and experience what (firefighters) do," Diana Souza said. "It was a great experience and I'm definitely going to encourage all council members and other decision makers to do it."