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…

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hydrant Versus Extinguisher

Writers, if you think using imprecise terminology isn't a big deal, read on...

A couple of years ago, a local TV news anchor presented a segment about a man who suffered some burns from a small kitchen fire. The anchor either read some badly written copy or suffered an embarrassing brain cramp when relaying the following advice from the fire department:
“…every home should have a fire hydrant in the kitchen…”

It may seem silly, but this slip-up illustrates the importance of using the correct words to describe things. Firefighting can seem like a whole other language (and at times, it is), but it's really not difficult to get the basics right.

Fire hydrants are, of course, the very large metal devices located on street corners (and other locations) that supply large volumes of water to fire engines. You know – like this:

(Photo by RFC1394 via Wikimedia Commons)
Not a very practical solution for fire safety in a residential kitchen…

The anchor obviously meant to say “fire extinguisher,” which is one of these:
(Photo by ronnieb via
Fortunately, this important safety tip was correctly reported in the station’s online story:

“Every home should have a fire extinguisher rated for use in a variety of fires, firefighters said.”

When you’re writing about firefighting and firefighters, please get your terms correct. It will establish credibility with your readership while saving you some red-faced moments.