Friday, January 12, 2018

The 411 on "9-1-1"

“Serious question: Is 9-1-1 a parody?”

That is how Darren Franich (Entertainment Weekly) opens his review of the new TV series 9-1-1. His question also sums up how I – and many other people, both within and outside the fire service – feel about this newest depiction of first responders.

I’ll take it a step further by saying: I don’t think any Hollywood production has insulted the fire service more than 9-1-1.

For me, the most egregious transgression in the first episode was the lone “renegade” rookie firefighter joyriding around Los Angeles in a ladder truck. By himself. For the sole purpose of hooking up with hot chicks. While on duty. The first of these scenes showed him running lights and sirens through L.A. traffic like a fire service version of The Fast and the Furious.

I used to drive and operate fire apparatus for a living. I can tell you that being behind the wheel of “Big Red” is a hard-earned privilege, not a right granted to every newbie fresh out of the fire academy. It is also a tremendous responsibility. Every time they roll out the door, whether it’s a casual drive to training or running hot to a cardiac arrest, fire apparatus operators have the lives of the crew and the public in their hands. They are also handling a very expensive piece of equipment paid for by taxpayers. These days, fire engines start at around $500,000 before adding equipment (and that’s a very conservative number); fully outfitted ladder trucks are pushing a million bucks.

It would take a dozen posts to cover every way the 9-1-1 premiere episode went wrong in addition to the joyriding scenes. But in the interest of brevity, here is a quick rundown from a former driver engineer’s point of view.

1. Rookies typically don’t drive fire engines and ladder trucks. They may be sent out on errands in a utility vehicle such as a pickup or an SUV, but that’s about it until they have adequate time and experience under their belts.

Having said that, some fire departments may operate differently out of necessity. Volunteer or short-staffed agencies may not have the luxury of waiting for a new firefighter to gain a year or more of experience. When they need drivers, they need them sooner rather than later. Some measure of training is still required, though. Big trucks do not handle the same as smaller passenger vehicles, and operators must know how to run pumps, hydraulic ladders, and other equipment. Legal liability is also a factor.

2. “Fast and furious” driving styles are not acceptable in the fire service. The dangerous driving shown in 9-1-1 has consequences ranging from citizen complaints at a minimum to injuries or even death at the worst end of the scale. As a whole, apparatus operators take pride in their driving skills and attention to safety. Portraying them as reckless maniacs is a monumental disservice to every driver who has busted their butt to earn that left seat position.

3. Taking apparatus on a solo joyride would likely be grounds for immediate dismissal in most, if not all, fire departments. Such dismissal could be subject to employment laws and/or civil service processes, depending on the agency and its policies. In many departments, fire officers cannot simply fire people – or re-hire them.

4. Taking apparatus on a solo joyride to have sex while on duty – yeah, I don’t think I need to elaborate on why THAT is so wrong.

5. I’ve never met an officer, no matter how kind or compassionate, who would give a second chance to anyone, let alone a rookie, who basically stole a fire truck that was in service to respond to emergencies. Joyriding like that is irresponsible, asinine, dangerous, and simply unforgivable.

The show glosses over the fact that fire company officers are ultimately responsible for everything their crew does. The lieutenant or captain in charge is going to be in the chief’s office right alongside the reckless rookie who screwed up. And it won't be pretty for either of them.

6. Technical point: Large fire apparatus have big motors that make big noise when they are running. 9-1-1 wants us to believe that the ladder truck was fired up and driven away while the crew was in the station, and nobody bothered to investigate what was going on or report the truck missing. They apparently just said “whatever” and poured another cup of coffee. Seriously???

7. Another technical point: Using a fire engine’s deck gun (sometimes referred to as a water cannon) to knock a fleeing criminal off a motorbike was clever. But even more amazing was the fact that the motor and pump were not running at the time. Both were dead silent during and after the stunt. (See No. 6 above.) Apparently 9-1-1 lacks technical advisors for this sort of thing…

That was just the first episode. What little I saw of the second wasn't any better.

For another perspective about how Hollywood missed the mark on firefighters (again!) with 9-1-1, check out Linda Willing’s article for FireRescue1 here: 

As Willing says, the fire service deserves better.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

What Kind of Year Has It Been?

On December 31 of each year, people like to look back and reflect on the kind of year they had. I thought it might be interesting to explore a little of what firefighters have done during 2017. This somewhat random list is inspired by real-world events. However, keep in mind it is just a snapshot, a glimpse into the world that firefighters occupy. 

  • Put out fires in houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, warehouses, barns, cars, cargo trucks, fields, forests, trash heaps, haystacks, railroad coal cars, and more. 
  • Trained on everything from basic firefighting skills to advanced rescue and EMS techniques. 
  • Helped people experiencing acute or chronic medical emergencies, including chest pain, difficulty breathing, diabetic problems, and traumatic injuries. 
  • Responded to people with minor medical issues because: they were genuinely concerned but didn’t know who else to call; they couldn’t afford an urgent care or ER visit; they could afford medical care but wanted free medical advice instead (yes, that happens); or they didn’t want to pay $30 for a taxi or Uber when Medicare or Medicaid would pick up the tab for a $1,600 ambulance ride (yes, that also actually happens). 
  • Sent apparatus and personnel to assist with major incidents (usually fires) in neighboring jurisdictions – or sometimes clear across the country. 
  • Responded to calls involving suicidal ideations, suicide attempts, or suicides involving people ranging in age from elementary school kids to older adults. (These types of calls are on the rise.)
  • Showed visitors the fire station and apparatus, and smiled at the excitement on kids’ faces when they saw the fire engine or ladder truck up close. 
  • Extricated or disentangled people from nasty wrecks, farm machinery, and industrial equipment. 
  • Taught CPR and first aid to citizens. (Suggestion: Make CPR training one of your 2018 goals.)
  • Performed CPR and other life-saving measures on people of all ages, including children, and provided comfort to distraught family members in the aftermath. 
  • Performed fire safety inspections at businesses and schools. 
  • Fought wildfires and rescued people from natural disasters, some doing so even as their own homes were being destroyed by the same fires and disasters. 
  • Read books to children at schools and libraries. 
  • Rescued animals that got themselves in tough spots, ranging from ducklings in storm drains to livestock stuck in well pits or mud bogs. 
  • Gave directions to people who needed help finding an address. 
  • Conducted fire patrols on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, the two biggest dates for fireworks, and stood by at fireworks displays for sporting and special events. 
  • Cooked some amazing meals for their crews – and also had some equally amazing kitchen catastrophes. 
  • Counseled juvenile firesetters on the dangers of their actions. 
  • Assessed minor injuries or mental health issues for people in law enforcement custody.
  • Investigated reports of smoke or fire called in by passersby who saw something (or thought they saw something) that turned out to be heavy equipment spewing diesel smoke, a barbecue loaded with extra hickory chips, or a legal fire pit. 
  • Investigated reports of smoke or fire called in by a passerby that did, indeed, turn out to be a fire that needed to be extinguished.
  • Quietly grieved the patients or fire victims they couldn’t save, or fellow firefighters who died in the line of duty, even if those firefighters were total strangers. 
  • Promoted safety messages regarding the importance of maintaining fire and carbon monoxide alarms, completely extinguishing fireplace ashes and cigarettes before discarding them, and not driving while distracted, drunk, or high. 
  • Helped people figure out – quite often between the hours of midnight and five a.m. – that the fire and/or carbon monoxide alarms that had been chirping for hours needed fresh batteries or were outdated and needed to be replaced. 
  • Extinguished fires caused by improperly discarded fireplace ashes or cigarettes. 
  • Provided emergency medical attention to people in nasty wrecks caused by other people who were drunk, high, or too absorbed in looking at their phones to pay attention to driving. 

(See any connection between those last four items?)

And today in Colorado, as has sadly happened too many times in recent years, firefighters were among the many first responders and citizens who lined roads and highways for a procession to honor a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty. Despite the historic rivalry between cops and firefighters, they are on the same side protecting their communities.

For firefighters, every day is different, often challenging, and filled with highs and lows. But they wouldn't have it any other way.

May you enjoy a safe, happy, and prosperous 2018.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Remembering the Cocoanut Grove Fire

There are two things that will earn a fire a prominent place in the history books: the magnitude of the fire and its destruction, and, sadly, the death toll.

On November 28, 1942 a night of entertainment and fun turned deadly when a fire broke out in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The fire killed 492 people. It’s estimated that only five minutes lapsed between the time the fire ignited in a basement lounge and when it burst through the entrance on the first floor.

Some of the contributing factors to the high number of fatalities:

  • Highly flammable d├ęcor that ignited quickly and allowed the fire to spread rapidly. 
  • Crowds that exceeded the club’s capacity.
  • Exit doors that were locked to prevent patrons from skipping out on their bar tabs.
  • A revolving door that jammed.
  • Lighting that failed, leaving occupants to search blindly in the dark for an escape. 

The Cocoanut Grove fire triggered changes in fire and building codes in the city of Boston and across the U.S. Hospital and medical personnel cared for a large number of burn and smoke inhalation patients, leading to advances in the treatment of these types of patients. The fire is now a case study in many firefighter training programs and college fire science curriculums.

For more comprehensive information on the Cocoanut Grove fire, check out the following resources:

The Cocoanut Grove Fire – a Project of the Cocoanut Grove Coalition

“Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” by Casey C. Grant, P.E. (NFPA Journal November/December 2007)