Friday, February 20, 2015

Is the Fire Under Control or Is It Out?

I fully admit that I am a die-hard word nerd – er, vocabulary aficionado. So when I see odd or incorrect fire terminology in books, news coverage, or elsewhere, it grates on my nerves the way that the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard gives other people the heebie-jeebies (at least for those of us old enough to remember chalkboards…).

However, I also realize that some firefighter lingo is just that – specialized terms and phrases that some people don’t understand simply because they’ve never been around the fire service. It’s a familiarization thing. But if you’re a writer and you’re writing about firefighting (or any other topic), it’s probably a good idea to become familiar with your subject.

Here’s a seemingly innocuous choice of words that I found in an online news report a few months ago:

“The fire is out and under control.”

The writer’s intent seems pretty clear: a fire was extinguished. But this sentence made me cringe for reasons related to both writing and firefighting.

Writing: Why the redundancy? If the fire is out, why not leave it at that? “The fire is out.” Clear and concise. Of course, if the writer is paid by the word he or she would be gypped out of three whole words.

Firefighting: A fire that is “under control” is not yet fully extinguished. “Under control” is not synonymous with “extinguished”; it only means that a fire’s progress has been halted and firefighters are progressing toward full extinguishment. In the fire service, “under control” would occur before “fire is out,” so the above example is also out of order chronologically (a technical point, certainly).

“Loss stopped” is yet another term used to indicate that no further damage is being done to whatever was involved. Over at the firehall.com (http://www.firehall.com/forum/archive/index.php/t-22124.html) discussion boards, the general consensus is that “loss stopped” is declared when no more damage is being done to the building. The fire is out and overhaul (the process of opening walls, ceilings, etc. to check for fire extension or hidden pockets of fire) is complete. Since overhaul by its very nature creates damage, loss isn’t considered stopped until fire operations are complete.

It’s these subtle nuances of language that make the difference between a credible writer who has done his/her homework and one who hasn’t put in the work to truly understand what firefighters are talking about.