Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween at the Firehouse

So what's Halloween like at the firehouse? Pretty much the same as at home, except firefighters don't wear costumes. It could be argued that since many people like to dress up like firefighters, they're in "costume" anyway. :-)

At the stations where I worked, the crews would chip in to buy candy for the trick-or-treaters. The number of costumed visitors depended on the station's location. If there was a new guy/gal in the house, the door-answering responsibility usually fell to him/her. Otherwise we took turns, or one person who really liked that job would take it on for the night. I never minded because it was fun to see what the kids chose for costumes, and they were usually excited to come to the fire station.

Our duties didn't come to a halt, though. We still had to respond to alarms, some of which inevitably involved citizens who'd partied just a little too much.

Don't be those people. Keep your children safe, enjoy the festivities, and have a happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Just for Laughs

From Failblog, original source unknown:

Um...that's not quite how it works...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Firefighting on TV

Chicago Fire may be a popular show in the NBC lineup, but I haven't been a regular viewer. After catching the first couple of episodes I decided that, despite some things I actually do like about the show, I wasn't up for a weekly melodrama set in a firehouse. It’s just a matter of personal taste, not a criticism of the show as a whole (although I do have some definite opinions about it).

The setting of a show – an office, a diner, a police station – doesn’t matter. Television writers and producers will take liberties with how things work in the real world for the sake of creating a good story. And in the end, isn't that what all of us are interested in? Taxi wasn't exactly an accurate portrayal of cabbie life in New York City. L. A. Law depicted more interesting cases in a season than the average attorney sees in a career. Millionaire mystery writers generally don't get to help NYPD solve murders like Richard Castle does. Yet all of these shows were/are popular with the viewing public. It’s all about entertainment value.

Shows about firefighters are no different. Writers usually skip over the less glamorous parts of daily firehouse life (vehicle and equipment maintenance, housekeeping, certain training topics) and cram multiple dramatic emergencies into every episode. Only busy firehouses are portrayed in the story, because that's what people want to see: all the excitement of nonstop alarms against a backdrop of salacious firefighter personal drama. If TV stayed true to certain details of real-life firefighting (such as long stretches without alarms at slower stations) and EMS response (2:00 a.m. calls for stubbed toes or constipation), the entertainment value would plummet. That's just the way it is in the not-so-real world.

So where does that leave Chicago Fire, Rescue Me, or classics like Emergency!?

First and foremost, they are entertainment created to grab and hold a viewer's attention.  In TV Land, everyone is beautiful or ruggedly handsome, story problems are larger than life (but can be resolved in 30 or 60 minutes), and interpersonal conflict and personal problems rule the timeslot. A lot of what you see on the screen may seem realistic, but trust me, most of the time it’s not. Whether you’re writing an entire novel about firefighters, or just have a scene or two involving fire, it’s your job as a writer to do your research – and I mean real research. Don’t be tempted to mirror what you see on TV or at the movies when it comes to firefighters, firefighting, and firehouse life.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Creative Terminology

Recently, someone used the term “unintentional arson” in a comment posted to an online news article about a fire. Since the basic definition of arson as defined by multiple sources is the intentional setting of a fire, this oxymoronic term doesn't work.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines arson as “the criminal act of deliberately setting fire to property.” It does not specify what type of property.

The website offers this definition of arson:

“By statute, a person is guilty of arson, if, under circumstances not amounting to aggravated arson, by means of fire or explosives, he unlawfully and intentionally damages:
a. any property with intention of defrauding an insurer; or
b. the property of another. [State v. Durant, 674 P.2d 638, 639 (Utah 1983)].

Under the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program, arson is defined as:

“(A)ny willful or malicious burning or attempting to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle or aircraft, personal property of another, etc.”

So what is the common thread here? Intent. “Deliberately setting fire.” “Intentionally damages.” “Willful or malicious.” Arson is committed by people who intend to damage or destroy the property of another. The term can also apply to a fire that was started by someone’s “outrageously reckless conduct.”

Here in Colorado, authorities have determined that the state’s two most destructive wildfires (the June 2012 Waldo Canyon fire and the June 2013 Black Forest fire) were “human-caused,” meaning natural causes such as lightning were ruled out. However, it’s important to note that “human-caused” is not the same as arson. Investigators must determine whether the human(s) who started the fires did so on purpose, or if they were just being ignorant and/or doing something stupid. Legally, the cases hinge on those crucial determinations.

Arson is an extensive topic, and I could go on for a couple more pages, but I won’t (at least, not today!). However, I will cover other aspects of arson in future posts. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Welcome to My Blog!

I went to my first fire when I was four years old. (Yes, there's a story there...) My great-great grandfather, father, and stepfather were firefighters. It only seemed natural to follow in their footsteps, and I did so proudly for more than 15 years.

Once I pulled on my first pair of bunker boots, I started to realize just how wrong portrayals are of fire behavior, firefighting tactics, fire equipment, and firefighters in works of fiction (whether in written stories or on the big/little screen). Hollywood has its reasons for chronic inaccuracy (usually having to do with getting good camera shots or playing up a dramatic storyline), but even knowing that fact, I still get annoyed by these inaccuracies on a regular basis. Why is it so hard for writers and producers to get the basics right?

One day I was discussing my frustrations with a fellow writer who happens to be a law enforcement officer, so he well understood where I was coming from. Cop shows have been playing loose with that profession for years.

He looked at me and simply said, “So why don’t you write a book about it?”

Well. Why didn’t I think of that?

The book, which is a guide to firefighting aimed specifically at writers, is underway, and I created this blog to support that work. My hope is that fiction and non-fiction writers alike will learn a little something about firefighting and use this knowledge in their stories. We’ll discuss how fire behaves in real life, what it takes to be a firefighter, the purposes behind the numerous pieces of equipment firefighters use on a daily basis, and more. It’s all in the interest of improving the portrayals of fire, firefighting, and firefighters in fiction. Maybe a few journalists will take note as well.

Today I’ll start with a brief nod to a historic event: the Great Chicago Fire.

Chicago in Flames
A Kellogg & Buckeley Co. lithograph illustrating
the burning of the Tremont House Hotel on Dearborn Street
On a dry and windy night 142 years ago, a Chicago barn fire grew into a conflagration that destroyed more than 17,000 buildings, killed more than 250 people and left 100,000 more without homes. While popular legend blames Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for kicking over a lantern and starting the fire, in truth the exact cause is unknown. Research by Chicago author Richard F. Bales indicates the fire did begin in or near the O’Leary barn, however.

What many people don’t realize is that the Great Chicago Fire wasn’t the only major fire to start on October 8, 1871. The Peshtigo fire in northeastern Wisconsin burned 1.2 million acres, destroyed 16 towns, and killed more than 1100 people.

This blog is a work in progress, so please be patient as I work out the new-blog-startup glitches. And be sure to bookmark this page so you can come back. See you soon!