Thursday, May 3, 2018

You Meet the Nicest People at Fires

Grass Fire by Robin Widmar. Copyright 2018.
My fire department has had a busy fire year, responding to four structure fires and three major grass/wildland fires in our area since January as well as providing assistance to other jurisdictions. Each fire was different, but one common theme that popped up was the kindness of neighbors, strangers, and often the property owners themselves in the face of adversity. The latter always catches me by surprise. Here these folks are, in the midst of losing a home or other property, and yet they are concerned about how others are doing.

On our most recent fire, which happened on a cold, snowy Spring day (this is Colorado, after all), the property owner invited me to sit in his truck to stay warm while we talked about the fire that had just destroyed his nice barn. He stood outside for most of that discussion.

It reminded me of another incident from my volunteer firefighting days – an attic fire that should have been quickly knocked down, leaving the house mostly intact and repairable. Instead, the house went to the ground thanks in part to a plethora of tactical mistakes by the incident commander, who ignored advice from some very experienced officers. The fire happened on another cold and snowy day, but even as the fire consumed their house, the owners opened up their barn to allow firefighters respite from a brutal north wind. I think they even brought us drinking water.

Just a couple of months ago, neighbors and total strangers descended on a house and grass fire after seeing a plume of smoke in a treed area. Some had been through the destructive 2013 Black Forest fire; others were just passing by and stopped to help. They came together with shovels and rakes and buckets to haul water from a nearby home, working until firefighters arrived to avert another disaster in their community.

Human nature being what it is, not everyone handles a fire with grace. I’ve certainly encountered my share of upset, angry, and freaked-out people at fire scenes. Those emotions were driven by the circumstances and are perfectly understandable. At a minimum, fire disrupts the day and creates inconvenience. On the other end of the spectrum, fires are traumatic events that change lives.

I’ve written about reactions to fire before, but it bears repeating. Writers who don’t infuse some strong emotions into characters affected by fires don’t understand the full and lasting impact a fire can have on the human psyche.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Bizarro World of Firefighting

Expanding on my last post about fictional firefighting, here’s some free advice to writers: You don’t have to put your firefighter characters into overly ridiculous situations to keep a reader’s or viewer’s attention. There is enough drama, levity, and bizarreness in the real world of emergency response to keep people entertained without resorting to over-the-top embellishment or “as seen on TV” tactics.

Trust me on this one. I review more than 2,000 incident reports annually for a small fire department. On the whole, they are fairly dry accounts of the situations our personnel are dispatched to and what they did on scene. Lurking beneath the facts, though, are intriguing, heartbreaking, and sometimes amusing mini-stories sprinkled with occasional “WTF?” moments and frequent insights into human behavior.

And that’s just in our little corner of the world.

I recently heard it explained this way: You know those commercials for Farmer’s Insurance that claim the company has seen it all? Well, firefighters, law officers, and EMS personnel have responded to it all. (Just as an aside, there's no denying that anything preceded by the statement, “Hold my beer and watch this!” can have, um, interesting results.)

If you want fodder for your projects, go online to sites like FireFighting News. Or better yet, interview a few first responders. You’ll probably get more than you bargained for.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Station 19: Here We Go Again…

So it seems we have another firehouse drama on the little screen. The first eight minutes of the premiere of Station 19 went about as I expected: A spectacular fire scene replete with a dramatic rescue and less than desirable use of protective gear, followed by soap opera-like antics at the fire station including kissing and groping between two crew members in a storage room.

You know. Everything people think happens during a shift as a firefighter and little about what actually does…

Photo of Actual Fire by R. Widmar
Copyright 2018
I’ve written at length about how TV and movies skew the public perception of firefighters. Yes, I get it. These productions are entertainment and not documentaries. But here’s why I, and many others in the fire service, are frustrated with the way Hollywood chooses to dramatize the firefighting profession. A few months ago while discussing a fire at his property, a citizen told me, “Now, I don’t know anything about firefighting except what I’ve seen on the TV, but...”

There it was. What I’ve long known to be true finally put into words by someone outside of the fire service.

Good or bad, if a person’s only experience with fire, firefighting, and firefighters comes from the world of entertainment, how do you suppose that shapes their perceptions? Their expectations? When they see firefighters behaving recklessly, being over-the-top heroic, taking unreasonable risks, making the impossible possible, not using proper equipment (or using proper equipment improperly) - well, isn’t it easy for them to assume that all firefighters are like that? Trust me, it happens.

Educating the public, whether about safety or how a fire department operates, is an ongoing effort for all agencies. Once negative (mis)perceptions become ingrained through TV and movies, they can be difficult to overcome.

I’ll address more Hollywood firefighting fallacies in future posts. But right now I want to take a moment to pay tribute to three real-life firefighters (two in York, Pennsylvania and one in New York City) who died in the line of duty yesterday. While the rest of us were sitting in our cozy homes watching fictional firefighting on the telly, real-world firefighters were putting their lives on the line protecting our communities. May those who were lost rest in peace, and may their families find comfort in memories of happier times with their loved ones.