Saturday, March 29, 2014

Kids and Firefighters

Being a firefighter has its dark and dangerous moments. But one of the bright spots in a shift for many firefighters is when kids come to visit the station.

Now, let’s just be clear up front that not all children are well-behaved angels when they visit a firehouse. Just as anywhere else, there are always those few obnoxious and rude kids that try everyone’s patience. I can recall a few that I wanted to turn a booster line on…

But for the most part, kids love to meet firefighters, see where they work, and ooh and ahh over the cool trucks they drive. And (most) firefighters love kids. They also enjoy the opportunity to provide a little fire safety education while giving station tours. Safety messages tend to stick in young minds better than in adult minds.

Today I was reminded of a five-year-old boy who was a “regular” at his neighborhood fire station. His dad brought him by during a shift I worked many years ago. Sadly, I can’t recall the little fellow’s name, but I do remember he was a smart boy. In fact, he almost knew more about the fire trucks and equipment than some rookies I’ve worked with! This kid was amazing. I can only hope he’s grown up and realized his dream of becoming a firefighter. I’m sure he’d be great at it.

Child in fire truck. (Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Some Days...

Firefighting is one of those lines of work where no two days are alike. Emergencies simply don’t happen on schedules.

This morning the Colorado Springs Fire Department responded on two structure fires at separate apartment complexes. One such apartment fire in a week or a month would be a little unusual for this area, but two in one day, just hours apart, is rare.

Some days are just like that. I recall many times when the alarm would sound during shift change as I was putting my gear on the engine or truck. We’d be off and running, often with members of the outgoing shift who hadn’t yet been relieved.

Sometimes that one call would be the most exciting thing we’d face all day: A major traffic accident that tied up the Interstate for a few hours. A medical situation that was quickly handled. A long and labor-intensive working fire. Whatever the call, we’d return to the station, get everything cleaned up and restocked, and spend the rest of the day on chores or training because the alarm gods would forget about us.

Other shifts it seemed we were bearing the brunt of the alarm gods’ ire. Calls were just about non-stop, one right after the other. We might get a brief respite in between runs, maybe a few minutes to down some lunch. Then we were off to the next call. And the next. Other times we’d be lucky to catch a potty break let alone something to eat. We’d roll in the back door of the apparatus bay and right out the front before the vehicle even stopped. I used to carry granola bars in my gear for such occasions.

The number and type of calls a fire crew runs in a shift all depends on a variety of factors. (See? There’s that “it depends” thing again!)
  • The community itself. Big city fire departments have a higher call volume than small town or rural departments. Makes sense, right?
  • Which apparatus the crew is staffing. Locally, truck companies tend to run fewer calls than engine companies because they have a different set of duties.
  • The area the fire station serves. Those near major highways will see more traffic accidents than stations located away from those arterials. Likewise, stations near places with a concentrated population (think schools, assisted living centers, etc.) may be called to more medical situations than stations in more industrial areas.
  • Weather. Fire crews see more grass fires on dry, warm/hot, windy days. But on snowy days when icy roads are prevalent, crews will respond to more traffic accidents than on days with good weather and dry roads.
  • Planetary alignment. Okay, I just made that up, but there were some shifts that simply defied logical explanation. Stuff just happened.
The only constants were the times when we made a positive difference in someone’s life. Busy or slow, those were always good days.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

It Depends...

People tend to ask all sorts of questions about what it’s like to be a firefighter and how fire departments operate. Firefighters and departments are all different, so the only catch-all answer is, “It depends.”

“What’s it like to ride around in that big truck?” Well, it depends on whether the crew is driving around doing preplanning, responding to a structure fire, or going on the fifth medical call after midnight. The attitudes, conversations, and emotions in the cab of that engine or truck will vary depending on the situation at any given moment. (But most of the time, it is kinda fun!)

“How many ladder trucks do fire departments have?” That, of course, depends on the size of the department, the size of the community it protects, and whether there are even any buildings tall enough to justify such an expensive piece of equipment. Many small volunteer and/or combination departments don’t have ladder trucks because they simply aren’t needed.

“What is the typical work schedule for firefighters?” Again, it depends on the department. Emergencies happen 24/7, so most departments use some version of a 24-hour shift schedule – and there are quite a few varieties in use. Then there are the volunteer departments that may or may not have someone on duty at the station. Work schedules really do depend on the fire department in question.

Writers, you’ll simply have to do your research. Whether firefighters are your main characters, secondary characters, or just walking through a scene, make sure you find out how they operate in your particular setting.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Words on Fire

Sorry for the recent blog silence. Sometimes life just gets in the way, and then there were the Olympics…but I digress.

Today we’re going to discuss word choices as related to one aspect of fire and firefighting. Writers work in the currency of words, and the terminology they use can affect how a reader interprets the message.

Take, for example, this headline on a local news station’s website:

“Royal Gorge Fire Cause Released”

Last year’s fire at the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park near Cañon City, Colorado, destroyed most of the attraction’s buildings. It started on June 11, the same day that the Black Forest fire, the most destructive in our state’s history, also ignited. Both fires came a year after the Waldo Canyon fire, which was the state’s most destructive wildfire to that date.

Now, I can tell you that people here are clamoring for information about how these fires began. All that’s known so far is that the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires were “human-caused.” Whether they were intentionally or accidentally set remains under investigation, as do the means of ignition, and no suspects have been arrested yet. But residents of these areas are hungry for answers, and justice if it’s deserved.

So when a media outlet says the cause of the Royal Gorge fire has been released, I’m sure many people, including me, grew hopeful that we’d learn more about what caused at least one of our local fires. Knowing how the fire started doesn’t change the outcome, but it helps people find a tiny bit of closure. And what did we get in this particular story?

The fire was human-caused.

Saying that a fire was human-caused (as opposed to being caused by an act of nature such as lightning) is not the same as stating what caused the fire. Cause means how the fire started, and “human-caused” could be any number of things: A carelessly discarded cigarette. A malfunctioning motor vehicle. An intentional ignition using a lighter or match.

This story provided none of that crucial information because it wasn’t released.

Was this headline a result of poor word choices, or did the reporter craft it to grab people’s attention and make them click through to the story (a trend that has seen a dramatic increase in our modern, information-cluttered digital world)? I’m guessing the latter, because other outlets used headlines like “Royal Gorge Fire Human Caused” and “Cañon City Police Department: Royal Gorge Fire man-made,” all of which more accurately portrayed the information released by investigators.

The point I want to make to all writers, no matter what field or genre you work in, is to choose your words carefully. If you’re not familiar with terminology related to whatever you are writing about, make the effort to research and learn. Being conscientious will help maintain your own credibility, and avoid giving your readers wrong impressions.