Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Another Year Comes and Goes

I recall a senior firefighter once telling me that his 30+ years on the job went by in a flash. One minute he was a young rookie, and the next he was attending his retirement party, wondering where the time went.

That's the way it is for people who enjoy what they do. Whether firefighters are paid or volunteer, the vast majority love their work with a passion that transcends the job itself. Firefighting isn't just what they do; it's who they are.

I watch young firefighters (anymore, they're all young to me!) at the inception of their (hopefully) long careers, and I wonder if they, too, will have the sensation that their careers have flown by when they retire. Yes, there will be ups and downs, and those occasional times when the clock seems to run in reverse. But overall, will the years pass before they even know time is racing by?

The only way to know is to keep flipping the calendar pages and see what happens.

Have a happy, productive, and prosperous 2015.

(Photo by R. Widmar © 2014)

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Life Goes On

Not to sound like a Grinch, but here’s what I learned about firefighting and the holidays: Fire doesn’t care what the calendar says. Nor does the Grim Reaper. Life (and death) goes on.

The problem is that all the tinsel and glitz of this time of year only exacerbates feelings of sadness and loss when something bad happens. House fires. Car wrecks. Deaths. These things happen every day, but they all seem so much worse when they happen during the holidays.

That’s probably why many firefighters I know tend to head the other direction. They collect toys for children in need, visit sick kids at the hospital, “adopt” less fortunate families, decorate apparatus and stations, drive Santa around town on the fire engine, and bring their families to the firehouse for Christmas dinner. These are the bright spots, the sanity keepers in what can often be a chaotic and emotional season.

Perhaps I’m a little biased, but firefighters as a whole are good people, and they do good things on duty and off. Happy holidays to all of them, and to the law enforcement, EMS personnel, and military who spend the holidays away from their families so that we can enjoy the time with ours.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Aerial Firefighting…Sort Of

According to a July 31, 2012 Business Insider article by Jennifer Welsh, French artists at the turn of the 20th century created images of what they thought life would be like in the year 2000. One of these images depicts firefighters tackling a blaze and making a rescue from the air, courtesy of personal wing packs.

While it’s true that every year brings new developments in firefighting equipment and technology, the fire service hasn’t yet advanced to these grandiose heights. However, there are some really magnificent firefighting aircraft used in battling large wildfires. My personal favorite: the DC-10s refurbished and provided by the 10 Tanker Air Carrier Corporation ( I highly recommend checking out the videos posted on the 10 Tanker website if you've got a few minutes of free time.

(Photo from

Thursday, November 27, 2014


I’m not sure when or where the fad of deep-frying turkeys originated. All I know is that today some fire department somewhere will be called to extinguish a fire started by improper use of a turkey fryer. This video from State Farm® shows how easily it can happen and offers a few tips to prevent these kinds of fires.

(Screenshot from State Farm® video
on YouTube)

Firefighters like helping people. They don’t like responding to the kinds of calls that can ruin an otherwise pleasant holiday for everyone involved. May your time with family and friends not result in a call to 911. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 17, 2014

How Much Does a FIrefighter Get Paid?

One question that occasionally arises is, “How much do firefighters get paid?” Mick Mayers, who pens the Firehouse Zen blog, recently addressed that topic in a post on the Uniform Stories blog.

Like everything else in the fire service, firefighter salaries fall into the category of “it depends.” Factors for pay include the size of the department, the size of its budget, and an area’s cost of living. Mayers cites Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers that show the annual mean wage for firefighters in 2013 ranged from $18,950 to $90,140. “While that low seems incredibly low and the high incredibly high,” Mayers says, “the reality is that the median annual wage is approximately $45,600. In the realm of getting rich, you aren’t going to do it in this profession.”

Which leads to another point about firefighter pay: People don’t necessarily sign up for firefighting to get rich. They do it for the love of the job. Sure, there is a modicum of job security, and shift schedules allow entrepreneurial-minded firefighters to develop side businesses. More often than not, though, second jobs just help firefighters to support their families, especially in areas with a high cost of living.

Firefighters face a host of risks in their chosen profession, and this fact is often overlooked by citizens who feel that firefighters are overpaid. Mayers references a 2013 NIOSH study that found that firefighters have higher rates of cancer than the average population in the U.S., and twice the rate of mesothelioma. Firefighters must often contend with the after-affects of job-related injuries and illnesses well into retirement. Mayers says, “…(F)irefighter retirement benefits simply don’t keep up with the bills that come from those situations. I know relatively young firefighters who have had to go out on a disabling injury or illness, and frankly, firefighting disability payouts in most communities are horrible.”

Job satisfaction is one of the intangible benefits of being a firefighter. Mayers closes his post by highlighting the pride firefighters have in the work they do for their communities. “…(M)ost firefighters are guys and gals that the community can trust to be there for them in their hour of need, people with a considerable amount of integrity and competence that given the amount of money they actually make each year, is a considerable return on investment for the taxpaying citizen.”

Something to think about the next time your local fire department asks for a modest budget increase.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Happy Birthday USMC

I just want to take a few moments to wish the men and women of the United States Marine Corps a happy and peaceful 239th birthday.

In the early 1980s, I had the privilege of serving as a Marine. It was one of the toughest and most demanding challenges I'd ever faced, but one that helped shape who I am and how I see the world. And I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

Semper Fidelis, my brothers and sisters.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Fiery Curse of Crying Boy Paintings

Here’s a spooky story for your Halloween: A supposedly cursed series of art prints blamed for fires that destroyed everything except those prints.

The “Crying Boy” paintings attributed to Italian artist Bruno Amadio feature tearful children staring mournfully from the canvas. Copies of the paintings were mass-produced by the thousands. In 1985, after unburned copies of the paintings were found amid the rubble of burned buildings, stories began circulating that the prints were cursed.

The saga of the cursed Crying Boy paintings began with a house fire in which a framed Crying Boy print survived unscathed. But what gave the tale legs was a firefighter’s claim that this was not the first instance in which a Crying Boy print survived an otherwise destructive fire. The story was first published by the U.K. tabloid The Sun, which, of course, is not widely known for its credible journalism. Nevertheless, the story caught the attention of a public fascinated by all things paranormal. On September 5, 1985, The Sun reported that numerous readers claimed that they, too, had fallen victim to the accursed artwork. There were even reports that firefighters refused to hang Crying Boy prints in their own homes and fire stations.

Investigators determined that the fires involving Crying Boy prints resulted from pretty normal causes: carelessly discarded cigarettes, space heaters placed too close to combustible materials, cooking fires, and so on. But the mystery continued to swirl: How did the Crying Boy prints survive the fires when little else did?

Eventually it was determined that the prints were coated with a kind of varnish that was difficult to ignite. Additionally, some of the prints may have fallen from walls during the fires and landed face down, which would protect them from the flames.

There are many online accounts of the Crying Boy Curse; just type that term into Google and see what pops up. For a full and well-researched account of the subject, I recommend a July 2008 article in the U.K. magazine Fortean Times by David Clarke titled “The Curse of the Crying Boy: Could a kitsch print bring fiery disaster to its owners?”

Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Words Make a Difference

Last week, I ran across a news story in which the writer described firefighters using “self-controlled breathing apparatus.” The correct term, of course, is “self-contained breathing apparatus” (also known as SCBA). My initial thought was, Really? In a direct quote from an experienced firefighter, how can you not get that right?

I decided this was worth a little exploration into how and why writers often get fire service terminology wrong.

First, the writer’s name was unfamiliar to me, so I’m guessing he is new to the organization. (I read a lot of articles on that particular news outlet's website, so I tend to recognize names that have or have not been around a while.) His writing style also indicated that he’s likely a younger person, maybe just out of college, and not a veteran reporter.

Reporters have a tough job. They can be assigned to cover anything from rubber duck races to major disasters, and are expected to get all the facts correct, even if they lack experience with a given topic. Young writers and reporters are at more of a disadvantage simply because they haven’t been on the planet long enough to accumulate a broad base of knowledge. They sometimes have a steep learning curve that, unfortunately, plays out in the public eye.

But what if this isn’t a young guy? What if this error was a result of what I call “not knowing what you don’t know”?

Everyone knows something. However, people are also susceptible to thinking they know something when, in fact, they don’t. We’ve all seen that human trait in action; just a few days ago, I observed a guy who publicly berated elected officials by trotting out “facts” that he was convinced were true but actually weren’t. When a person doesn’t know something, he or she usually won’t realize it until someone else sets that person straight.

I’ve seen this a lot with writers trying to describe firefighting. People think that because they’ve seen Backdraft and Chicago Fire, they’ve got this firefighting thing down pat. No need for actual research. Or maybe they do research, but their sources are flawed or otherwise not credible, or they misinterpret the information. Sometimes I think they discard research in favor of drama. Why let facts get in the way of a good story?

So it’s entirely possible that this particular writer thought he knew what SCBA stood for when he really didn’t.

It’s also possible, but in my mind unlikely, that the firefighter misspoke and unintentionally used the wrong word. We’re all guilty of those moments when the brain outpaces the mouth and out pops something we didn’t mean to say. But SCBAs are a crucial part of protective gear. Firefighters spend so much time drilling with SCBA from the moment they set foot in a fire academy that the terminology becomes ingrained. Using incorrect vocabulary in this case is tantamount to getting your own name wrong.

Another possibility is sloppy note-taking. I use my own shorthand when jotting notes during interviews; in some cases, one abbreviation can stand for different things depending on context. This is where experience comes in. I’ve been a compulsive note-taker my whole life, so deciphering my own scribbles really isn’t difficult. But maybe this guy doesn’t quite have his system down yet. Maybe he wrote down something like “self cont. breath. app.” and later mistook the “cont.” to mean “controlled” instead of “contained.”

Or perhaps the writer simply had one of those frustrating misfires between brain and keyboard. It happens.

Regardless of the reason(s) behind this writer’s mistake, it’s still a mistake that can cause a reader to suspect the writer’s credibility. It becomes a breach of trust between writer and reader, and that is something that you don’t want to happen.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Fire Prevention Week

Every year, fire departments across the country observe Fire Prevention Week, which was created to draw attention to fire safety issues. This year, Fire Prevention Week is observed October 5-11, and the theme is “Working Smoke Alarms Save Lives – Test Yours Monthly.” Here’s a little history of Fire Prevention Week.

In 1911, on the 40th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire (which destroyed more than 17,000 buildings, killed more than 250 people, and left 100,000 more without homes), the Fire Marshals Association of North America decided to commemorate the fire by promoting fire prevention. President Woodrow Wilson issued the first National Fire Prevention Day proclamation in 1920, and in 1925 the first National Fire Prevention Week was observed. The National Fire Prevention Association now sponsors Fire Prevention Week.

Fire Prevention Week begins on the Sunday of the week in which October 9 falls. (The Great Chicago Fire started on October 8, 1871, but did the most damage on October 9.) Each annual observance is underscored by fire safety themes such as “Don’t Give Fire a Place to Start,” “Fire Won’t Wait – Plan Your Escape,” or “Smoke Alarms: A Sound You Can Live With.” During World War II, themes like ”Fires Fight for the Axis!” and “We Burned the Enemy – Now Save Yourself from Fire” tied fire prevention to the war effort and subsequent victory.

According to NFPA and the National Archives and Records Administration's Library Information Center, Fire Prevention Week is the longest running public health and safety observance on record.

For more information on fire safety and National Fire Prevention Week, go to

(Reproduced from NFPA's Fire Prevention Week Website, Copyright 2014 NFPA.)

Friday, September 26, 2014

How Many Firefighters Does It Take…

No, this isn’t the opening line to a bad joke…

Someone recently asked me how many firefighters it takes to put out a fire.

The answer is, of course, “It depends.”

Structure fire.
(Photo courtesy of
How big is the fire? Is it a structure or wildland fire? What kind of structure is involved (house, apartment complex, strip mall, factory) and what kind of materials were used to build it? What kind of wildland (grasses, heavy timber) is involved? What are the weather conditions? Firefighting is labor intensive in the best of circumstances, and crews try to rotate through tasks and take breaks when possible for safety and health reasons. Extra crews may be needed on extremely hot or cold days simply to relieve other firefighters.

In Colorado Springs, local news reports said that 68 firefighters responded last weekend to fire at a large hotel/condominium complex. Not every firefighter was directly involved in fire suppression; some of these personnel operated in a support capacity (safety, firefighter rehab, refilling SCBA bottles, etc.) or as part of the command staff. But an incident like this involving a large number of occupants and a high-rise building is going to require a lot of resources, even in a best-case scenario.

A recent house fire prompted the response of 24 Colorado Springs firefighters. Again, some of the firefighters were on scene to provide support.

But it’s important to remember that many fire departments, especially small and/or all-volunteer agencies, are limited in resources. A few weeks ago, a house fire in the small town of Walsenburg, Colorado (population around 3000 people) was handled by 16 firefighters, which probably stretched the capabilities of the departments responding to that blaze.

Even if the fire involves a huge warehouse or a bunch of railroad tanker cars, there may be only so much the local department can throw at it. Additional personnel and equipment will have to come from neighboring jurisdictions.

For writers of all kinds, it’s important to understand that numbers only paint a small portion of any fire picture. Fires of all kinds require “as many firefighters as it takes” to put them out.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11: Never Forget

Millions of people can recall with astounding clarity exactly where they were and what they were doing on September 11, 2001. For firefighters, the date is especially meaningful because it signifies the largest number of firefighters lost in a single incident. They may not have known any of the 343 FDNY firefighters who died trying to save others in the Twin Towers that day, but they still feel the loss. Firefighters are a very large, extended family that believes in the meaning of brotherhood and sisterhood.

Across the country, firefighters have already completed or will participate in an annual event known as the 9/11 Memorial Stair Climb. From the website

Each participant pays tribute to a FDNY firefighter by climbing or walking the equivalent of the 110 stories of the World Trade Center. Your individual tribute not only remembers the sacrifice of an FDNY brother, but symbolically completes their heroic journey to save others. Through firefighter and community participation we can ensure that each of the 343 firefighters is honored and that the world knows that we will never forget. The proceeds of these events help the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation create and maintain programs that support fire service survivors. Your support of the 9-11 Memorial Stair Climb events provides assistance to the surviving families and co-workers of the 343 firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice on September 11, 2001.

Firefighters need to be in top physical condition, as this is an extremely demanding event. Firefighters wear full bunker gear, air packs, and carry a piece of equipment used for high-rise fires (e.g. 2.5” hose pack or a forcible entry tool) as they ascend the stairs of a high rise building or other venue such as Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado to simulate 110 stories.

Other memorial events include a ceremony at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial located at the National Fire Academy/National Emergency Training Center complex in Emmitsburg, Maryland. I was privileged to witness this moving ceremony firsthand in 2013. It is my sincere hope that these tributes continue long into the future to tell the world:

We Will Never Forget
9/11 Memorial at the National Fire Academy/
National Emergency Training Center, Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Photo by R. Widmar. Copyright 2013.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Smoke Jumpers

Here's an old video about smoke jumpers you might enjoy. Smoke jumpers are those crazy - er, I mean extreme wildland firefighters who jump out of perfectly good planes and parachute into remote wilderness areas to fight wildfires. The run time is 54:25, but if you have some time to spare, give it a look.
(If the link doesn't work, go to YouTube and search for "Smoke Jumper Training for Airborne Fire Fighting - 1940's Fire Fighting Educational Documentary.")

For more current videos, search for "smoke jumpers" on YouTube. Lots of great stuff out there, and you can see how training, equipment, and procedures have evolved since the 1940s.

Smoke jumper training and work is physically demanding, yet the guys and gals in this line of work typically love what they do. It's a firefighter thing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Back to Basics: What Firefighters Do

From an outsider’s perspective, the world of firefighting probably looks relatively simple: After sitting around the station all day playing checkers (sarcasm alert), the alarm goes off. Firefighters put on some heavy coats and pants, climb aboard the big red truck, and go squirt some water on a fire. Then they go back to the station, have dinner, play some cards, and go to bed. (Sarcasm again. I have to make that clear because you wouldn’t believe how many people think that’s what firefighters do all day.)

But if you’ve been reading this blog, know a firefighter or two, or simply pay attention to the variety of things you see firefighters doing in news video, you should already know the job is a little more complex. Turn to any news station (especially with all the natural disasters in recent years) and you’ll see firefighters making water rescues, searching tornado rubble for victims, extricating people from nasty car wrecks, or suiting up to mitigate chemical hazards.

Part of the reason the fire service has expanded from basic fire suppression to all-hazards emergency response is that fire departments are 24/7/365 operations. With stations strategically located in communities and neighborhoods for quick response, training firefighters to handle a variety of emergencies only made sense. In rural areas served by volunteers, this “jack of all trades” approach is crucial when help may otherwise be hours away.

Expanding the fire service mission has also helped fire departments justify their existence. The overall number of fires has decreased in recent decades thanks to improved fire prevention and education. That's great news for citizens, but the trend left fire departments trying to fend off budget cuts and downsizing (“If there’s fewer fires, why do we need so many of you?”). By adopting a culture of “customer service” and responding to everything from overflowing toilets (yes, those calls actually happen) to rescuing stranded rock climbers, firefighters have increased and improved services to the taxpayers. It’s a win-win situation.

Here’s some of the stuff modern-day firefighters do. This is just a general list that may or may not apply to a given department (remember, it all depends on the agency), but it proves the point that firefighters do more than fight fire.
  • Firefighting (structural, wildland, aircraft, shipboard, industrial, etc.) – Fire is still the primary reason fire departments exist.
  • Emergency medical services (EMS) – In many locales, EMS calls account for the bulk of fire department responses. These calls range from someone who called 911 for a stubbed toe (true story) to severe trauma injuries, cardiac arrests, and everything in between.
  • Hazardous Materials response – Not all departments have dedicated HazMat teams, but firefighters are usually trained as HazMat first responders. This means they will respond to a HazMat call, attempt to identify the problem, take steps to protect people, and secure the scene.
  • Traffic accident/vehicle crash response – Includes stabilizing the vehicle(s), mitigating any hazards such as spilled fuel, treating patients, and using specialized equipment to extricate victims.
  • Specialized rescue – Includes swift water or flood rescue; high-angle rescue (rock climbing); heavy rescue for building collapses and trench rescues; and ice rescue. Some agencies also help rescue large animals at farms, ranches, and zoos.
  • Hazard response – Includes initial response to utility problems such as ruptured gas or water lines, downed power lines, etc., or any other situation that poses a risk to health or life safety.
  • Public education – Firefighters give fire safety presentations to school children, Scouts, homeowners associations, or pretty much anyone who asks. Many lives have been saved as a result of public education efforts by firefighters.
As I said, this is just a brief overview of what firefighters do for the public. Contrary to popular belief, not many games of checkers or cards are played these days…