Friday, May 30, 2014

Prank the Probie

One of the standard fire service traditions is to play pranks on probationary firefighters – those new faces that show up on the line one day, fresh out of the fire academy. Firefighters will pull pranks on one another regardless of seniority, but newly minted firefighters are a favorite target.

First, you should understand that senior firefighters call new firefighters by a variety of names, depending on the department and region. Some common terms are:
  • Probie (short for probationary firefighter)
  • New guy (regardless of gender) or new kid
  • FNG (meaning “f***ing new guy”)
Firehouse pranks can be elaborate or simple, and are usually fairly harmless – just a way to blow off steam, relieve boredom, relieve stress, and/or welcome the newest members to the brotherhood and sisterhood of firefighters. However, I believe that some fire departments have abolished these rites of passage because some of them got out of hand. Boys will be boys and all that.

During my time on the line, I was subjected to a number of silly pranks (and played a few of my own!). My bunk was short-sheeted and floured; a cup of water was balanced on the door of my locker so it would come crashing down when the door was opened. One trick involved using clear tape to depress the trigger on the kitchen sink sprayer. When the unsuspecting person turned on the kitchen faucet, he or she would receive a stream of water squarely in the chest.

I became very good at checking sprayers when I approached any kitchen sink at any fire station…

The only cardinal rule we had was that personal protective equipment (aka PPE, turnouts, or bunker gear) and equipment on the rigs were strictly off-limits.

I found an article at the Fire Link website that lists 25 ways to “prank the probie.” While certainly not all-inclusive (an entire book could be written on the topic!), it will give you a taste of firefighter prank creativity.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

Too many people view Memorial Day as just another day off, a time for barbecues and beer and making summer plans. Let's not forget the reason behind this day and remember those who served, and continue to serve, our great country.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Hollywood Gets Fire Sprinklers Wrong, Too

There are a number of things on my list of "things that writers get wrong about firefighting," but oddly enough I didn't include fire sprinklers.

We've all seen movies and TV shows where someone, often a bad guy, sets off a fire sprinkler system in a building in order to get people to leave the building, distract them from what's really going on, or for some other nefarious reason. All too often, one activated sprinkler is depicted as setting off the whole system, creating an indoor water park of sorts.

Reality: For most (if not all - I'm not up on current systems and codes!) residential and commercial fire sprinkler systems, only the affected sprinkler head(s) will activate.

Check out this video from the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition (HFSC) to see how sprinklers work. 

Obligatory PSA: If you want to learn more about the life-saving benefits of home fire sprinklers, go to

While you're doing that, I will be adding fire sprinkler systems to my myths of fictional firefighting. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

When the Good Guys Go Bad

Firefighters earn a lot of admiration and respect from the public because of what they do: run into burning buildings to put out fires, rescue pets from culverts and other hazardous places, and save lives. Law enforcement officers don’t always get the same level of hero worship. Even though they, too, save lives and make dramatic rescues, they’re also known for giving perfectly nice people speeding tickets and locking up Aunt Myrna when she’s had one too many Cosmos and starts a bar fight.

Firefighters are the good guys (and gals). Right?

It would be nice if that were the case one hundred percent of the time. But let’s face it: Firefighters are human, and humans are inherently flawed. They make mistakes and poor choices just like everyone else. The difference is that firefighters are held to a higher standard than many other professions and need to be trustworthy, since they routinely enter homes and businesses in the course of their duties. Even in the volunteer firefighting ranks there’s a sense of honor and duty, and upstanding behavior is the norm rather than the exception. The vast majority of firefighters really do tend to be the good guys and gals, both on duty and off.

However, there are always those few bad apples in any basket…

In recent weeks, stories surfaced about a California battalion chief who went on the run for two weeks after allegedly killing his girlfriend. (According to news reports, he confessed to the murder upon his arrest.)

In Houston last week, a firefighter was arrested after threatening to shoot everyone in his station.

About six weeks ago, a former fire chief in Colorado pleaded guilty to theft and embezzlement. He reportedly made more than $600,000 of unauthorized purchases using his fire district’s credit card and bank account. (As if no one would notice...)

Recently, New York City firefighters and police officers were playing in a charity hockey game when a bench-clearing brawl broke out. (Not the behavior you’d expect from NYC’s first responders, but then again, it was hockey.) However, a little ice scuffle is probably not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, considering that more than 100 NYC cops and firefighters are currently facing charges of filing false disability claims stemming from 9/11.

While the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire was still burning in Colorado, a volunteer firefighter in a nearby county decided he wanted to see some action, too. So he started his own wildfire that forced the entire town of Elbert, Colorado to evacuate.

One of the most notorious serial arson cases in California during the 1980s and early 1990s involved a seasoned fire investigator. This case was chronicled by author Joseph Wambaugh in his book Fire Lover.

Your takeaway: These cases all involve a very, very small percentage of firefighters, but they make a big splash in news cycles because nothing is more juicy to the press than when a person in a noble profession goes to the dark side. Don’t overlook all of the good things firefighters do in their communities just because a few less than honorable folks grab the media spotlight.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

And the Number One Mistake is…

Last week I presented a workshop at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in which I dispelled my top myths about firefighting. Topping the list of errors I see in movies, on television, and in written fiction: the depiction of fire and how it behaves.

Structure Fire
(Photo by Kpahor via Wikimedia Commons)
Most people have never been firefighters, or experienced fire up close and personal beyond a barbecue, fireplace, or campfire. Today’s society is all about the digital world, so what people see in TV shows and movies all too often becomes their reality. Those misconceptions about fire then make their way to the written page.

The problem is that Hollywood distorts how it depicts fire, firefighters, and firefighting. The reasons for doing so actually make a lot of sense. Take those scenes of fire inside buildings where you can see everything that’s going on. Story is all about conflict and drama, but if the viewer can’t see what’s going on, if the shot was obscured by smoke as would likely happen in a real fire, then the dramatic effects of the firefight or rescue would be lost.

Fire also poses safety concerns for anyone working on a set, so directors turn to special effects crews to provide spectacular visuals without hurting or killing anyone. These kinds of special effects often utilize natural gas or propane piped into a set so that it can be controlled. Those kinds of fires don’t put off a lot of smoke and they behave differently than a free-burning fire in a structure.

Sometimes fire and smoke are inserted into a scene digitally using computers. Nice and safe, but usually not very realistic.

Now let me say up front that the subject of fire dynamics is extensive. How a fire ignites, grows, and behaves depends on the fuel(s) involved, available oxygen, whether the fire is confined to a structure (and how that structure is configured and ventilated) or in a forest, weather conditions, the level of fire suppression involved at any given moment, and so on.

However, there are just some basic concepts that seem to elude writers of all levels and genres. I’ll also tackle fire behavior in future posts, but here are some quick tips to get you started.

1. Fire is hot. Seems like a pretty silly statement, right? But stop and think about the movies and shows you’ve seen in which a firefighter carries a child to safety through a raging inferno with no apparent harm to the kid. It may look good on the screen, but it’s not realistic.

Interior fire temperatures can range from 100°-500°F, with flashover or backdraft situations pushing temperatures upward of 2000°F. Generally speaking, modern structural firefighting protective gear can withstand temperatures a little higher than 500°F, but not for extended periods of time. In contrast, human skin can blister at less than 160°F. If you’ve ever burned yourself on a hot iron, cooking pot, or oven door, you know how little it takes.

2. Fires produce smoke and toxic gases. The amount and color of smoke will vary depending on the material that’s burning, how much oxygen the fire is getting, etc. Toxicity of gases also varies with the fuel being burned, but carbon monoxide is pretty much a given with any fire.

3. Structure fires today, especially residential fires, burn hotter and faster than they did 20 or 50 years ago. This is due to changes in building materials (from turn-of-the-century heavy timber to lightweight construction techniques); the amount of synthetic materials in modern households; and, quite simply, the volumes of stuff people have in their homes nowadays.

Writers, if you want to accurately portray fire and firefighting in your stories, do your homework. Go to YouTube and search for firefighting videos, especially those from firefighter helmet cameras. Use Google. Go to the library. Talk to your local firefighters.

Your readers will appreciate you for getting it right.