Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Firefighting: A Job or a Career?

There are people who immerse themselves in the fire service, eagerly consuming information, training, and incidents like kids in a candy store. They show up early, leave late, and always strive to be the best firefighters they can be. It’s a pretty common attitude to see among new firefighters, and for some, this attitude lasts an entire career and even beyond. 

Then there are those for whom being a firefighter is just a job. They go to the station, do their work, and go home, giving nary a thought to the job until it’s time to report back to duty. Sometimes these folks come into the profession with the perspective of, “I was looking for a job when I found this one, and I can always find another one.” Others morph over the course of a career, going from the 24/7 enthusiastic firefighter to one who just punches the clock and counts the days to retirement.

And, of course, some firefighters ride the line between these two mindsets. They are proud to do the work they do, they work hard, and they enjoy the constant education of being a firefighter. But they are clear that firefighting is what they do; they don’t let the job define who they are.

For more on the subject, check out this Fire Engineering article written by Joseph Kitchen, who is the chief of the Bath Township Fire Department in Lima, Ohio. His “checklist” is a black and white look at “career” versus “job”, with no gray areas or overlap, but it gives some pretty good insight into firefighter perspectives about their chosen profession.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Remembering Fallen Firefighters

National Fallen Firefighter Memorial, Emmitsburg MD
Sept. 11, 2013 (Photo by R. Widmar)
Firefighters understand the risks they face when they sign up for the job. However, that acknowledgement does not diminish the sadness, grief, and shock when a firefighter dies in the line of duty.

In spite of improvements in equipment, firefighting tactics, and firefighter fitness, about 100 firefighters die in the line of duty every year in the U.S. according to statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration. In 2013, the year covered by the USFA’s most recent report on firefighter fatalities (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/data/statistics/ff_fatality_reports.html), 106 firefighters lost their lives on duty. That number includes 47 volunteers, 29 career (paid), and 30 wildland firefighters. General causes:

  • 77 died from activities related to an emergency incident
  • 55 died from activities at a fire scene
  • 36 died from heart attacks
  • 14 died while responding to or returning from emergency incidents
  • 9 died as a result of vehicle crashes

In the tradition of the fire service, no firefighter is forgotten. Every September and October, firefighters across the country honor their brothers and sisters who have made the ultimate sacrifice through various events.

9/11 Memorial Stair Climbs: These events are held around the country to honor and remember the FDNY firefighters who were killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. From the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation website (http://www.firehero.org/events/9-11-stair-climbs/):

Each participant pays tribute to a FDNY firefighter by climbing or walking the equivalent of the 110 stories of the World Trade Center. (The) individual tribute not only remembers the sacrifice of an FDNY brother, but symbolically completes their heroic journey to save others.

The stair climbs are held at high-rise buildings, or outdoor venues such as Colorado’s Manitou Incline or Red Rocks Amphitheater. Proceeds from these events help support fire service survivors and provides assistance to the surviving families and co-workers of the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11.

IAFF Fallen Fire Fighter Memorial: Colorado Springs residents are familiar with this event, which is held every year at the city’s Memorial Park. It is a colorful tribute to fallen members of the International Association of Fire Fighters that includes honor guards, bagpipers, and drummers from across the country. More than 6,000 firefighters, family members, and others attended this year’s event at the newly expanded and reconstructed memorial, which now includes the names of 7,352 IAFF members who have died in service to their communities since 1918. More info: https://www.iaff.org/hs/ffm/about/index.aspx

National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend: The National Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland is dedicated to the memory of all career and volunteer firefighters who have died in the line of duty. This year’s National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend (http://www.firehero.org/events/memorial-weekend/) is happening now (October 3-4). Eighty-seven firefighters who lost their lives in 2014 will be honored.

(Photo courtesy of National Fallen Firefighter Foundation via Facebook)

Bells Across America for Fallen Firefighters: Historically, fire departments sounded a series of bells when a firefighter died in the line of duty to alert all members that a comrade had made the ultimate sacrifice. This time-honored tradition continues today during the funerals or memorial services for firefighters. As part of the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial Weekend, bells will sound nationwide to honor fallen firefighters. More info: http://www.firehero.org/events/memorial-weekend/about/bells-across-america/

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Accuracy in Fiction: Does It Really Matter?

I’m a stickler for correctness in writing, both my own and that of others. That doesn’t mean that I am perfect, but I do make an effort to get things right as a writer. As an editor, I obviously work to make sure my clients get it right, too. Despite the current state of writing in the digital age, I still cling to an idealistic notion that quality trumps quantity, and accuracy matters even in make-believe worlds.

But when it comes to the finished product, particularly in the realm of fiction, does it really matter how accurate the facts are?

Case in point: I just finished Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs, who is a forensic anthropologist by trade. She has become one of my favorite authors in part because of the technical expertise she brings to her stories. Now, I don’t know squat about forensics or anthropology, and only a minimal amount about police procedures and investigative techniques, so I really can’t say whether her facts are a hundred percent correct. Frankly, I don’t even care that I lack that knowledge. Reichs is a credible source. When she says things happen a certain way, I don’t question it. I roll with it and enjoy the story.

I imagine it's the same for anyone who reads a book in which there are scenes about fire, firefighting, and firefighters. If they don't know anything about those subjects, they will trust that whatever the author says is correct and won't give a second thought to anything but the most glaring errors. They just want a good story. But if I'm reading that same book, my reading experience will be different. Flaws will stand out like flashing neon signs because that’s my territory. It’s a simple matter of knowledge about a particular subject.

The question then becomes this: If subject matter experts only make up a small portion of your readership, is factual inaccuracy acceptable in fiction? And if so, how much can an author get away with?

Most firefighters I know are quick to pick up on technical inaccuracies in TV shows and movies. The amount of ensuing derision, or the speed at which they change the channel, largely depends on how egregious the error is and their willingness to let it slide. To some it’s a big deal; others, not so much. To paraphrase a comment I heard just recently from the wife of a firefighter who critiques every show and movie he sees, “Who cares? It’s just a story.”

When it comes to books, I’m solidly in that former category. I feel that if you’re getting paid to write, research and fact checking are a vital part of the process. While I have been known to grit my teeth against glaring firefighting inaccuracies just to get through the rest of an otherwise interesting story, I’m not happy about it. If those kinds of errors appear in a book that doesn’t grab my attention, isn’t written very well, or if the portrayals of fire and firefighting are unrealistic even for fiction (see my previous post), we’re done. 

However, I know I'm in the minority and many readers honestly don’t care about the technical stuff. All they care about are the characters, plot, and story. Just remember: It’s quite possible to get the facts straight and tell a romping good story. Why not give your readers the best of both worlds?

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Reaction Time

A couple of years ago, I read a book that would probably fall into the cozy mystery niche. What makes it relevant for this post is one particular scene that jumped out at me and has stuck with me ever since.

(Photo by "chelle" via MorgueFile.com)
In the story, the mild-mannered protagonist becomes aware of a fire around the corner from her home. She rushes barefoot into the evening to find out what’s going on, sees the fire, and enlists a neighbor’s help to unsuccessfully try and rescue the occupant. Once the firefighters arrive, she watches them work while carrying on a “Hey, what a surprise to see you here, what have you been up to?” sort of conversation with an acquaintance. After answering questions from the police, and getting irritated with them because they keep asking her the same questions, the character then moseys on home, seeming more dismayed about being detained on scene than the fact that someone in her neighborhood just died in a fire and she couldn’t help. Her life just goes on with hardly a hiccup.


I’ve been to a few fires in my career(s), and I can tell you that this fictional reaction is atypical. Fires are A Big Deal. People come out of the woodwork to watch in awe, shock, curiosity, horror, sadness, and fascination. Some will be traumatized to varying degrees by what they witness. A few will enjoy watching the destruction because they’re not quite right in the head (which is a whole topic unto itself). I’ve seen grown men cry as they watch their worldly possessions go up in flames; blank expressions of utter shock on the faces of now homeless occupants; neighbors in a panic, fearful that the fire would spread to their property; and heart-wrenching sadness and guilt over innocent pets fatally caught in the blaze.

I’ve also seen tears of joy when people lose their homes but are reunited with pets feared dead; stoic resignation and acceptance of a “new normal”; strangers coming together to lend a helping hand; and parents being strong for their children in the face of adversity. Emotions and responses to a stressful, life-changing incident like a fire really can run the gamut.

Since there was nothing to indicate that the character in the story was absent of all ability to feel, uncaring, or a psychopath, this laissez-faire attitude to what most people would consider A Major Event in their community didn’t cut it with me. As far as I was concerned, the author pretty much lost all credibility at that point, and I haven’t wasted any more of my hard-earned dollars on that person’s books.

Writers, your takeaway here is simply this: Don’t emotionally shortchange your characters (or your readers) by not allowing them to react to the situation, whatever that situation may be. When it comes to fire, people may react differently, but I assure you, they will react.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Natural Born Storytellers

Whether they are active or retired, firefighters all have tales to tell. Considering the extraordinary things an “average firefighter” witnesses over the course of a career, this should come as no surprise.

“Do you remember the fire at the old strip mall when the captain fell on his a** on the ice right in front of the TV camera?”

“One day we were called to a man on the roof of a house, and he was stoned and wouldn’t come down…”

“How about the time that woman came to the door wearing only a g-string and a smile?”

Recently I spent some time with my dad, who has his own catalog of stories covering several decades in the fire service. I’d share some of his more entertaining experiences, but I know much of the flavor would dissipate in the retelling. There’s simply nothing like hearing about the “good old days” of the fire service from someone who lived it. The calls they ran (the good, the bad, and the strange), training (which is sometimes reminiscent of our grandparents talking about walking uphill each way to school barefoot in four feet of snow…), equipment and apparatus (technology advancements only go so far and occasionally regress), and, of course the people involved – it always comes back to the crews you work with.

I have my own stable of stories, and while they may be interesting to people unfamiliar with firefighting, in my opinion they pale in comparison to the anecdotes of the older firefighters. They fought a lot more fire and had to do it without the advantages of today’s personal protective equipment, radio systems, and other advancements in technology.

If you ever have the chance to listen to firefighters of any generation sharing “war stories,” take advantage of the opportunity. It is well worth the time spent. But in lieu of stories told in person, there are plenty of books written by firefighters. Go to the Firefighters Bookstore (www.firebooks.com) and check out the memoirs, or do a search on Amazon for “firefighting books” (but read the descriptions carefully!). You can also uncover firefighting treasures in used bookstores, but it can take some determination (and luck) to find them.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Remembering Those Who Gave All

(Photo by DuBoix courtesy of MorgueFile.com)
“For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” – James A. Garfield, speech at Arlington Cemetery, May 30, 1868

Thursday, May 14, 2015

You Had to Be There

When writing about the fire service, among the most difficult things for a writer to capture are the nuances of fire service culture.

I recently tried to explain a specific subtlety of firefighter culture in an email to my editor. I wrote and re-wrote that message, let it sit, went back and edited some more before finally hitting the “send” button. The explanation about why something was an issue to me, but probably wasn't to anyone outside of the fire department, was as absolutely clear as I could make it.

My editor still said, “I don’t get it.”

Those four words summarize the challenge for most writers who have never been in the fire service, but try to write about firefighters and firefighting: They don’t get it.

Forget about the technical aspects for a moment. Consider the perceptions and perspectives that are formed by working and living with other people for 24 or 48 hours at a time, and seeing the very best and the very worst of human nature on a daily basis. They extend beyond the paramilitary nature of firefighting or the language of firefighters, and truly fall into the category of “you had to be there” or “if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand.”

That may sound like arrogance, but stop and think about it. If you’ve never played football, can you truly understand the mentality and emotions of players on the field during The Big Game? Sure, we watch it on TV and we’ve seen multitudes of player interviews, so it’s easy to think we know what it’s like. But unless you’ve put on the pads, and put in the hours in the gym or on the field, and ridden the rollercoaster of a professional career, you will always lack that firsthand knowledge that lends authenticity to your written work.

Now apply that concept to firefighting. There is only so much you can learn by studying the subject. The rest you have to experience.

The best fictional depictions of firefighting that I have seen come from writers who are firefighters. One of my favorite authors is Earl Emerson (http://www.earlemerson.com/), a Seattle firefighter who retired after 32-1/2 years on the job. For me, reading his books is truly relaxing because I know he’s going to “get it right” when it comes to anything fire-related. I don’t find myself gnashing my teeth over poor apparatus descriptions, or mentally screaming, “That’s not how fire behaves!” (Yes, I do a fair amount of internal kvetching when I read…more than I care to admit…)

But that doesn’t mean that writers who haven’t been firefighters can’t create authentic scenes and characters in their books. Somewhere in my collection is a book by an author who wasn’t a firefighter, but in her acknowledgements she credits a number of firefighters (some of them apparently family members) for helping her to get the details right in her arsonist-on-the-loose story. (I apologize that I cannot recall her name or the book title, but I will update this post when I track down the book.) This writer did her research and did it well, and it shows in the story.

That is the bottom line here: Just do your research when it comes to firefighting. Do as much as it takes for the scope of your project. There are numerous resources available in the modern age; take advantage of them. If you have the opportunity to participate in a “citizen’s academy” hosted by your local fire department, jump on it. Even if you don’t write about fire and firefighting, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation for what firefighters do.

* * *

Earl Emerson has many books to his credit, but to see how a firefighter tells a good story about firefighters, check out some of his fire thrillers:

  • Vertical Burn (2002)
  • Into the Inferno (2003)
  • Pyro (2004)
  • The Smoke Room (2005)
  • Firetrap (2006)
  • Primal Threat (2008)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Firefighting Family

If you spend any time with firefighters, you’re bound to hear about the firefighter “family” – brother and sister firefighters bonded by a job they love, by the work they do, and by the highs and lows that come with the territory. This family often extends beyond immediate crew to fire department support staff, members of neighboring departments, and even to firefighters who have never met. When firefighters die in the line of duty, it’s common for other firefighters from across the U.S., or even from other countries, to attend the services. They provide comfort and support to the family of the fallen as well as that person’s crew and department. “Firefighters take care of their own” is the mantra, and over the past few weeks I experienced firsthand just what that means.

On April 7, my stepfather of 42 years, retired Ft. Carson F.D. captain Roy Conopask, passed away unexpectedly. Firefighter/EMTs from my own department, along with AMR paramedics, responded to the call. Despite their tremendous efforts and the exhaustion of all advanced life-saving protocols, Roy didn’t survive. (Here I must point out that none of the responders knew initially that their patient and I were related. Their efforts to save him were no less than they’d give to any other member of our community, and demonstrated a high level of professionalism.)

Roy Conopask in 2010. (Photo by R. Widmar © 2010-2015)
Through every step of the following days (which are kind of a blur at this point), firefighters and retired firefighters – both known to us and complete strangers – offered assistance with anything we needed. It was truly humbling and comforting.

Right away, the fire officer on the scene of my stepdad’s call notified our deputy chief, who stayed with my mom and me until the coroner arrived (and would have stayed longer if we’d asked, even though he had to work that day). The next afternoon, a friend Roy had worked with at FCFD came to advise us where to begin on filing notices and claims, and started to spread the word among mutual friends, retired firefighters, and active duty firefighters. A notice he posted to a Ft. Carson firefighters Facebook page garnered a number of condolence messages from firefighters Roy had worked with and mentored.

Our funeral director also happened to be a firefighter. He went above and beyond to arrange an amazing memorial service and tribute to Roy: Honor Guards from Ft. Carson F.D. and AMR. Ladder trucks from Ft. Carson F.D. and Security F.D. (with whom Roy served for several years) flying a large American flag from their extended ladders. A 1942 Seagrave parade engine from Ft. Carson. Two more fire engines and crews from Security F.D. (yes, they were on call and would have responded to any alarms that came in during the service). A bagpiper (who happened to be a paramedic I used to run calls with during my time at CSFD) to play Amazing Grace and Going Home. The traditional ringing of the bell and the last alarm roll call.

It was all pretty stunning.

Ft. Carson's 1942 Seagrave. (Photo by R. Widmar © 2015)
Prior to the services, I was trying to track down a CSFD firefighter who had previously worked with Roy. When I told the firefighter who answered the station phone why I was trying to reach that person, he immediately offered condolences and the assistance of IAFF Local 5 should we need anything. He remembered me from my time on the job years ago, but never know my stepdad, and yet he stepped up with an offer to help us because we were part of the “family.”

Like all families, the firefighting family can be dysfunctional at times. Sometimes that sense of family can be lost within larger organizations where, unlike on the TV show Cheers, everybody doesn’t know your name. But large or small, career or volunteer, the fire service is still a family that will be there whenever one of their own needs them.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Congratulations! It’s a Fire Truck!

Today’s post is as much about the sad state of modern journalism as it is about firefighting.

One of our local news stations posted an article to its website about the delivery of a new fire engine to the Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District (http://netellerfire.org), located in the mountains west of Colorado Springs. Now, getting a new rig is A Big Deal for most fire departments, especially those that don’t have the luxury of a large budget. You know how it feels when you buy a new car? Same thing on a larger scale. Firefighters like new toys, and toys don’t get much bigger or better than a shiny new fire truck!

Firefighters at Northeast Teller County (CO) Fire Protection District
clean their new fire engine before putting it into service. (via Facebook)
But fire departments don’t just go out and buy new vehicles on a whim. Nowadays, a brand new fire engine costs around $250,000 - $300,000 on the low end. Fire departments will buy new apparatus to replace vehicles that are aging and becoming more difficult to keep in service. A growing department will buy additional apparatus to support expanding operations and to improve emergency service to the community. In other words, no one goes out and buys a new truck just for the fun of it. There has to be justification for a large purchase like that.

However, the writer of this news story apparently doesn’t know just what a new fire truck means to firefighters and the citizens it will serve. He or she simply copied bits from the NETCFPD Facebook page to create a three-sentence “story” that basically said the department has a new fire truck and its members are “excited” about the acquisition.

That’s it.

The basic tenets of journalism require writers to answer the questions of who, what, when, where, and why. This “story” failed on all accounts. Right off the bat, the writer didn’t even get the name of the department/district correct. The vehicle was described simply as a “fire truck” so the reader doesn’t even know what kind of apparatus was delivered (engine, truck, rescue, etc.). There was no mention of why the rig was purchased (replacement vehicle or expansion of the fleet?), how the purchase was funded (important for the taxpayers to know), when the vehicle will be in service, what capabilities it has, or how the purchase benefits district residents.

Sadly, this kind of uninformed writing is all too rampant in the digital age. I used to blog about typos and bad writing, but I had to give it up. It was a time-suck and there is simply an overabundance of bad grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax to keep up with.

Perhaps it is naïve of me, but I keep hoping that what I do here on this blog will help writers better understand the fire service. When writers perpetuate stereotypes or misinformation, it tarnishes writer credibility and doesn’t do the fire service any favors, either.

In the meantime, congratulations to Northeast Teller County Fire Protection District on its new engine. May it serve the district well for many years.