Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving at the Firehouse

It’s tough to be away from home during holidays that are traditionally spent with family and friends. But firefighters are a kind of family unto themselves, and they make the best of it because they know their work is important to the communities they serve.

Firefighters will usually attempt to prepare traditional Thanksgiving meals – a challenging task for busier crews whose cooking duties can be frequently interrupted by alarms. Sometimes a local hotel, restaurant, organization or grateful citizen will provide the meal.  Many departments allow firefighters to invite family to their fire stations for Thanksgiving. Not only is this a pleasant break in routine, it allows someone to keep an eye on the turkey so it doesn’t burn. Dried out poultry is bad enough; it’s really embarrassing when firefighters get called for smoke coming out of their own station!

But along with food, family, and camaraderie comes house fires, traffic accidents, serious medical situations, and other emergencies. Firefighters leave their families and turkey dinners to help others in need, and all too often witness the loss of homes and loved ones during a time that should be full of joy.

A quick Internet search led me to this video posted in 2009 that gives a glimpse into firehouse life on Thanksgiving in New York City:

I like this video because it captures the spirit of firefighters and the good-natured ribbing that goes on in the station. It even includes a quick tutorial on some firefighting equipment. It also shows a classic phenomenon: the alarm going off right as the crew sits down to eat. One firefighter rises from his seat as he continues to shovel food into his mouth until the very last moment when he has to leave the table. Most firefighters have used this time-tested maneuver at some point in their careers (and for some it’s a regular habit!) because they never know just how long they’ll be gone.

Have a safe and pleasant Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

They’re Not Oxygen Masks!

In the past year, I have run across at least three instances in which a writer incorrectly called the air masks firefighters wear into fires “oxygen” masks. One was in a news report, the other two appeared in novels; all were incorrect. Here’s the latest occurrence from a novel:

“Only then did he remove his [firefighting] helmet, and then the oxygen mask.”

Firefighters use Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) which are similar to the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) many people are familiar with. SCUBA gear is designed specifically for underwater use. Firefighting SCBAs are designed for hazardous environments such as fires. They can withstand high temperatures and a certain amount of day-to-day abuse, but are not suitable for use underwater.

Here’s what SCBAs look like on a couple of firefighters preparing for search and rescue training:

Photo by Robin Widmar. Copyright 2012.
SCBAs utilize air cylinders that are filled with filtered compressed air – regular old air, just like we breathe every day – not pure oxygen. Normal air consists of 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, and 1% other gases.

The air passes from the cylinder, which is clipped into a frame outfitted with shoulder straps and belt, through a regulator to reduce the high-pressure air from the cylinder to a breathable level. Air moves from the regulator to a full-face mask, which seals to the firefighter’s face and keeps the good air in while keeping the bad air out. Most of today’s SCBAs use positive pressure, meaning the pressure of the constant air flow also helps to keep contaminants at bay if the mask seal happens to leak.

SCBAs are equipped with alarms that sound when air runs low, allowing firefighters time to exit the hazardous environment. Personal Alert Safety Systems (PASS) are integrated into newer models of SCBA. PASS devices sound a piercing alarm when a firefighter is motionless for a short period of time, alerting others that a firefighter is down and needs help.

That’s the long way to simply say firefighters do not wear oxygen tanks/masks into fires. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fire Apparatus 101

Last year I ran across this account of a traffic accident involving a fire engine that was posted on the website of a local news station:

“Officials say the truck from Engine 9 was enoroute to a call with lights and sirens active, when they were hit.”

For the sake of this post we’re going to overlook the misspelling of “en route” and other grammatical/punctuation errors, and focus instead on basic fire department lingo.

Considering that many people outside of the fire service simply don't know the differences in fire apparatus, I generally don't get my knickers in a twist when people call them “fire trucks.” But there are differences in fire apparatus, and it’s important to understand those differences if you’re going to write about firefighting in any detail. Please note that the terms I provide here are basic and may differ from terminology used in other parts of the country.

“Fire truck” is a generic term frequently used by the public (and sometimes by firefighters) when referring to vehicles such as fire engines (which are also called pumpers) and ladder trucks (also known as aerial ladder trucks, aerials, or simply trucks). There are different types of ladder trucks, including tower ladders and tiller trucks, but for now we’ll stick with the basics.

Fire departments also have specialized apparatus such as tankers/tenders that haul large amounts of water to fire scenes (common in rural areas); heavy rescue units that respond to building collapses, trench rescues, and the like; and brush trucks or wildland trucks used in fighting grass, brush, and forest fires. Some coastal departments have fireboats (which are very cool in my opinion!) and a few larger departments with hefty budgets even have their own helicopters.

Fire departments typically use specific identifiers for their apparatus. A common structure is to identify the vehicle by type and the fire station to which it’s assigned. In Colorado Springs, Engine 9 is a fire engine operating out of Fire Station 9; Truck 4 is a ladder truck operating out of Station 4; and so on.

Thus “The truck from Engine 9” in the sentence above just makes no sense whatsoever. 

Again, keep in mind that each fire department is different and may use different terminology. If you want to see the kinds of apparatus fire departments use, just go online and search by the department name. You’ll see fire apparatus of every kind, shape, size, and even in a variety of colors because not all fire trucks are red!

Falcon (CO) Fire Protection District Engine 311
staged at a roadblock during the June 2013 Black Forest Fire.
Photo by Robin Widmar. Copyright 2013.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Turned Firefighters

Like many of my firefighter brothers and sisters, I am a military veteran. I was unable to dig up  statistics about the number of firefighters who also served in the military, but in my experience it's not an insignificant number. I fought fire alongside men and women who served in all branches of the service, including some who saw combat in several wars and conflicts.

Veterans typically adapt well to firefighting in part because fire departments are traditionally based on a paramilitary structure, meaning they operate in a manner similar to the military.
"The fire service is widely accepted as a paramilitary organization. Promotion is accompanied by a change in rank, and chain-of-command authority in an emergency situation is absolute…Just as the military is constantly preparing for war, fire departments are constantly preparing for an emergency." (Fire Service Administration, Grant & Hoover, 1994)
Today NPR ran a story about veterans who have become firefighters. "Vets-Turned-Firefighters Find Brotherhood, Purpose" spotlights a few of the 43 veterans hired this year by New Jersey's North Hudson Fire Department. The department plans to hire more veterans in 2014.
"Beyond just trying to find a job, many vets say after the military, they're still looking for a career with a sense of public service...the vets are disciplined and skilled and their military background makes them well suited to the job. The recruits say firefighting gives them the sense of camaraderie and purpose they miss."
To all veterans who have served, and continue to serve, thank you.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Virtual Truths

One reason I started this blog was to help writers understand that when it comes to firefighting, what we see on TV and in the movies shouldn't be taken as the truth.

Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Really? You think I can't tell the difference between fact and fiction?" Writers collectively tend to be a pretty bright bunch; far be it from me to insult anyone's intelligence!

But also...yes. I'm starting to notice more writers, even experienced authors, describing fire and firefighting the way they appear in TV and movies. Sometimes the discrepancies are subtle, fine details that only someone familiar with firefighting would notice and that don't affect the story. Other times descriptions are so blatantly wrong it's obvious the writer didn't do a lick of research.

I blame the prevalence of special effects in TV and movies. Don’t get me wrong – I love the advancements in computer-generated imagery as much as anyone else. But special effects have become so realistic that people tend to forget they’re watching something that’s manmade.

Here's some support for my theory. On Nov.4, The Gazette newspaper published an article about the Colorado Springs Fire Department's FireFactor program, which is designed to educate children about the dangers of fire and firesetting. As part of the program, middle school students were shown a video about the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of “Catching Fire.” In the second video:

“…a special effects team set a forest on fire, then put the flames out in seconds. When asked if they [the students] thought Hollywood and popular culture affected their attitudes on fire, more than three-quarters of the children answered that it did.”

If three-quarters of these kids say that movies and TV affect how they perceive fire, it’s not much of a stretch to say that adults are influenced as well. Firefighting is not something most people get to experience. In this age of digital special effects, it's all too easy to believe that the fire scenes created in Hollywood reflect real life. 

Fortunately, the Digital Age has also given us tools to see exactly how fire behaves and what happens during fireground operations. YouTube can be a pretty good resource for videos shot by firefighters. Thanks to technology and helmet cameras, viewers can see what fire looks like from the outside of a building, and then go inside to see interior fire and smoke conditions. There are other online resources available, too. Just fire up Google and plug in search terms for whatever you want to see.