The air smells of grease and gasoline in The Plains Fire Department in Athens County at 7 p.m. Tuesday as the firefighters prepare for their biweekly training exercise.  

The objective seems simple: get a rubber ball from one side of the maze to the other.  

The issue is that the maze lies flat on top of some two-by-fours, leaving only a few inches of space between it and the floor.  

Volunteers are not allowed to pick up the maze with their hands. They are only allowed to use the tools they have in the extraction truck, and they must use each tool at least once.  

The extraction tools include airbags, crowbars and large mechanical claws. The tools do nothing if they are not used properly and efficiently, hence the night’s exercise.  

“Forty minutes,” Mike West, Mickey’s father, says. “They better have that done sooner than 40 minutes. I’m trying to go home and get some sleep.” 

Mickey and Jessica’s 11-year-old daughter, Sophia, has been coming to the Fire Department her whole life.  

“The day she got out of the hospital from being born, this is the first place she came,” Mickey says. “She loves coming here.”  

 Timmy Sloan, a member of the department’s junior firefighter program, paces the station eagerly waiting for the activities to begin. 

Photo by Morris Wein

Timmy and another junior firefighter, 17-year-old Jacob Simkins are on Team One, along with Mickey’s uncle, Chuck West, and Kevin Anders, a student at Ohio University (Athens) who is also a volunteer firefighter.  

Jacob takes the lead. Chuck, a senior firefighter who has been volunteering in the department for six years, observes.  

Team One is struggling, constantly getting the ball stuck in a dead end, forcing them to start over from the beginning. Jessica encourages Chuck to offer more help to his team.  

“You’re with juniors,” she says, “You gotta teach them!” 

As a team, they complete the maze in just over 20 minutes. Mickey brags that his team will complete the exercise in 10 minutes.  

Team Two steps up to try. They struggle in the same spot as Team One for a moment, but not as long, completing the entire maze in 15 minutes.  

Mickey is on a team with his father and two other senior firefighters, and they mean business.  

Focused, and having learned from the mistakes of the previous two teams, Mickey and his father lead the team to complete the maze in four minutes and 45 seconds on the dot.  

“Well it’s easy when your team goes last,” Jacob says.  

Jacob and Timmy want to try the maze again, determined that they’ll get it done faster this time.  

“We all bad mouth each other, but we love each other,” Mike says. “We don’t mean it.” 

“Everyone in the department is family,” Timmy says.