Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 3

Two of the most common controversies that arise when discussing a firefighter’s job are eating and sleeping on duty. Few jobs allow people to be paid while shopping for groceries or catching a quick nap under their desk. But then again, few employers require their employees to be at work for 24 or 48 hours straight.

FDNY Engine 65
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
The whole point of having paid firefighters on duty 24/7 is to reduce response times to any emergency that arises.

Fires double in size (roughly) every minute they burn. The sooner firefighters arrive the sooner they can put out the fire, thus preventing deaths, minimizing injuries, and reducing property loss.

In EMS, the faster a patient receives treatment for a traumatic injury, cardiac problem, stroke, or other life-threatening emergency, the better chance he/she has of surviving the event. Statistics repeatedly prove that having staff on duty around the clock reduces response times and thus improves service to the community.

But when you work 24 (or 48) hours at a stretch, you still have to eat, right? Full-time American workers typically get a daily meal break and additional breaks during the workday. Why wouldn’t firefighters?

Occasionally you will see firefighters at the grocery store or picking up a meal at a fast-food place. Policies for shopping on duty vary by department (some allow it, some don’t), but many agencies view it as an opportunity to interact with citizens and provide positive public relations.

Then there's sleeping at the firehouse. Contrary to modern belief, sleep is not a luxury. It is a biological function as necessary to health and survival as food, water, and breathing. Loss of sleep leads to deterioration of cognition and motor skills, and subsequently decreased performance. Before you complain about firefighters “sleeping on the job,” ask yourself: How well could you perform your job after being awake for 24 hours straight? How sharp are your skills after working just 10, 12, or 16 hours? Do you want fatigued emergency responders trying to help your loved one through a medical crisis in the middle of the night?

The reality is that some nights you will get just that: Emergency responders who have been on the go all shift. Some shifts are busier than others. Some fire departments and individual fire stations are busier than others. It all depends on where you are.

Emergencies do not occur on any sort of schedule, so interrupted meals are common and there’s no guarantee of a full night’s sleep. On a subconscious level, firefighters are always on alert for that next call. Responding to fires or rescues that require a great deal of physical exertion takes firefighters from rest to peak performance with no warm-up.

Over time, the stresses associated with emergency response take a toll on mind and body, and many firefighters retire or leave the job carrying the burden of physical problems, mental health issues, disabilities, or cancer. How cushy is that?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 2

There are many things aside from emergency response, training, and apparatus/equipment maintenance that firefighters do during their workdays. Some tasks, like station chores and report writing, are not very glamorous. But everything firefighters do supports an overarching goal of providing the best service possible to their communities.

The paperwork never ends.

Paperwork. Like any other business, the fire service generates its fair share of paperwork (or the digital equivalent). Paperwork is often a firefighter’s least favorite activity, but it’s important from a legal standpoint, keeps the department running smoothly, and ensures compliance with national standards.

Incident reports document the circumstances and actions taken for every response. Statistics generated from these reports are used in a variety of ways at the local, state and federal level. For example, incident data can reveal the most common causes of fires, trends in fire causes, how many lives are saved by working fire alarms, or consumer product failures. Fire departments use response data to inform decisions regarding budgets, staffing, and resource deployment.

Documentation must also be maintained for fire and EMS certifications; apparatus and equipment maintenance and testing; inspections and pre-plans of commercial structures; and maintenance and cleaning of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Facilities maintenance. In most (if not all) fire departments, firefighters are the janitorial staff and grounds keepers. They tend to daily cleaning chores, perform routine maintenance, and make minor repairs to their facilities. Major repairs or facilities projects are typically contracted out.

Community risk reduction (aka fire prevention). One of the best ways to fight fires is to prevent them from starting in the first place. Firefighters teach children and adults about fire safety and make presentations to community groups. They assist those who need help installing or maintaining smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, give station tours to visitors, and conduct walk-throughs of buildings to become more familiar with floor plans and fire protection systems. In some departments, firefighters are also responsible for conducting fire inspections.

Public service. Sometimes a citizen needs help for a non-emergency situation and doesn’t know who else to call. Maybe a person has an overflowing toilet and he/she doesn’t know how to shut it off. Or a sewer has backed up into a basement or crawlspace. Sometimes wild animals (squirrels, skunks, snakes, etc.) get into houses, and domestic animals (dogs, cats, cows, horses) become trapped in drainage pipes, wells, or pools. Firefighters respond to these types of calls and more because they either have the resources, or can usually get the resources, to resolve the problem.

Community events. The public loves to see fire trucks and firefighters at their parades and festivals. Far from being a waste of taxpayer dollars, these are invaluable opportunities for fire crews to meet the people in their communities, answer questions, and share information about the services they provide. Kids also love seeing the trucks and meeting the firefighters. You can’t put a price on brightening a child’s day.

If you want to know more about what your fire department does, visit its website, call and speak to someone, or stop by a fire station. If the crew isn’t busy, they can show you the station and equipment and will gladly answer any questions you may have. After all, they’re not just hanging around playing cards, you know.

Check out my next post to learn more about a seemingly controversial aspect of being a paid firefighter: Eating and sleeping on the job.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 1

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
As evidenced by the September op-ed piece in The Mercury News and frequent comments from well-meaning (or occasionally just mean-spirited) citizens over the course of my career, it’s clear that many people have no idea what firefighters do all day. They still cling to the perception that firefighters get paid for hours of leisurely activities between occasional alarms. This notion likely stems from the days when fire departments only responded to fires, which were not an everyday occurrence. But times have changed, and so has the fire service.

Most firefighters no longer have a lot of time to sit around playing cards. There is a lot that goes on “behind the scenes” at any given fire department. Here is a quick look at some of what happens at the firehouse every day. I will cover more in upcoming posts.

Incident response. Obviously, a fire department’s primary responsibility is to mitigate emergency situations. Firefighters have been referred to as “the Swiss army knives” of the emergency services because they handle a variety of emergencies, not just fires. (See my previous post here.) That translates to more incident responses (also referred to as simply “calls” or “alarms”) per shift. The time spent on each alarm includes traveling to and from the incident scene, handling the emergency, and returning equipment to service in preparation for the next alarm. The latter can include cleaning vehicles and tools, refilling air cylinders for self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), topping off apparatus water tanks, and/or restocking medical supplies.

Training. Because fire departments are now all-hazards response agencies, firefighters must be proficient in more skills than ever before. That means they must spend more time training to maintain current skill levels and certifications, or to develop new capabilities. Training can consist of hands-on exercises, drills, or evolutions in which firefighters don protective gear and practice water supply, fire attack, structural ventilation, vehicle extrication, search and rescue, and more. Training can also include classroom sessions, videos, or even “what if” scenarios discussed around the lunch table. The learning never stops because skills and knowledge can literally be the difference between life and death.

Apparatus and equipment maintenance. Yes, firefighters spend a lot of time washing fire trucks. These days, new structural fire engines start at around $500,000 (and that’s being conservative). Equipment such as hose, nozzles, SCBAs, ground ladders, generators, tools, and medical equipment can add another $100,000 or more to the price. Ladder trucks can run upwards of a million dollars, more for specialized apparatus such as tillers. Keeping vehicles and equipment clean and in good working order is a matter of safety and a source of pride. But it also protects the investment that you, the taxpayer, have made in those expensive vehicles and tools.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Firefighter Work Schedules

Note: The following post refers to work schedules at fire departments with paid personnel. Volunteer fire departments typically do not operate on a fixed schedule.

The issue that recently triggered a California columnist’s rant about “cushy” firefighter jobs was a proposed change in fire department shift schedules to 48 hours on/96 hours off. On the surface, this sounds great – work two days and get four days to do as you please! Heck, who wouldn’t want that kind of work schedule? Especially when, as the writer claimed, much of that time is supposedly spent on leisurely activities such as grocery shopping, polishing fire trucks, and playing cards.

The problem with these kinds of uninformed, blanket statements is that nothing about firefighter shift schedules is as simple as people want to think. Emergencies happen at all hours, every day of the week, so emergency responders must also be available 24/7/365. At the same time, those charged with managing budgets and complying with federal labor laws must determine how to keep payroll and overtime costs in check while ensuring adequate coverage for emergency response. And that’s where the shift schedules come into play.

Fire App Screenshot

The fire service has long used variations of a 24-hour shift schedule. Some examples:

  • Three or four 24-hour shifts with a day off in between the first two shifts and four days off after the last shift.
  • 48 hours on duty with 96 hours off duty.
  • 24 hours on, 48 off.
  • 12-hour shifts (either for the whole department or just for the busiest companies).
  • 10- and 14-hour shifts. In one arrangement, firefighters work two 10-hour day shifts for two days in a row, then two 14-hour night shifts two days in a row followed by four days off.
The average number of hours that firefighters work each week can run 56, 60, or even 72 hours depending on the schedule. By comparison, a 40-hour workweek is considered standard fare for full-time employees in this country. Results from a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey and a 2014 Gallup poll revealed that the average number of hours worked by full-time employees in the U.S. has increased to between 44.5 and 47 hours per week. And let's be honest: In the age of texting and social media and online shopping, just how many of those work hours are actually spent working?

I won’t argue that firefighter work schedules can be pretty great at times – but it all depends on the department, the station assignment, and the call volume. Twenty-four hours at a slow station is much different than the same shift at a busy firehouse where breaks are few, meals are wolfed down between responses, and sleep deprivation becomes a lifestyle. Even slow stations have days where the action is non-stop and the crews go home exhausted.

Another consideration of shift schedules is quality of life for the firefighters. The 48/96 schedule is gaining popularity nationwide, especially for those who work in large metropolitan areas with high costs of living. When firefighters can’t afford housing in the communities they serve, they move to areas where they can afford to live but then must contend with lengthy commutes. Working for 48 hours straight means driving long distances fewer times a week and provides a compromise for firefighters who want to work for large departments but also have families to support.

These are just a few of the considerations that go into fire department shift schedules. As for the things firefighters do to fill their work hours, take a look at my blog entry from August 2014. I will also talk about a typical day at the firehouse in an upcoming post.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

"Cushy" Firefighter Jobs

On September 16, a columnist published an op-ed piece about a change to firefighter work schedules in her city. She disagreed with the increasingly popular 48/96 schedule, in which firefighters are on duty for 48 hours straight and then have 96 hours off. She called the schedule "cushy" and said she wanted to be a firefighter because of all of the "perks" of the job as she sees them:

"Spend on-the-job time buying groceries, sleeping in the station most nights, polishing up the fire engines, exercising, playing cards, and getting handsomely paid for all this."

This from a person who likely spends her days pecking at a keyboard in a climate-controlled environment, the greatest hazards of which are paper cuts and bad coffee, and then goes home every night to her family...

The thing that irritates me the most is that this writer apparently didn't make any effort to actually find out what a shift in the firehouse entails. She merely spoke with "a few" firefighters and a city official about the new schedule (all of whom supported it), and then proceeded to throw her tantrum anyway.

If you want to disagree with something, fine. That's your right. But you'd better present some hard data to back up that opinion if you expect to maintain any sort of credibility with me. As far as I'm concerned, this person has none, which is why I refuse to print her name or link to her article in my blog. Just Google "firefighter cushy job" if you want to read it.

Of the more than 350 comments, most took this writer to task for her "disrespectful" and "condescending" attitude as well as her "embarrassingly lazy journalism." A firefighter union official wrote a rebuttal which did lay out the facts nicely. Over my next few posts, I will endeavor to make a similar effort because I feel it's important for the public, and for writers, to know exactly why being a firefighter isn't the "cushy" job that some people - people who are determined to remain misinformed - want to think it is.

I'll start with two brief facts: Firefighters know the risks when they sign up for the job, but that doesn't mean their deaths should just be accepted as "one of those things." In the eleven days following publication of the opinion piece in question, at least seven U.S. firefighters died in the line of duty. The 15th anniversary of 9/11, which saw the deaths of 343 FDNY firefighters, occurred just five days after this article was published. 

How's that for cushy?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

9/11 Retrospective

In the weeks leading up to this year’s 9/11 anniversary, I began reading Dennis Smith's Report from Ground Zero. I bought my copy when it was first released in 2002 but was only able to read about a third of it. The writing was quite good, but the devastating memories were still too fresh, too painful.

When I visited Ground Zero in May 2004, I discovered that two years and eight months still wasn't enough time to truly process the horrific events of that September day. With no connections to New York City, I wept for the thousands of strangers who were lost, the emergency responders who died trying to save others, and the family, friends, and co-workers who had to carry on in the aftermath.

Fifteen years later, I finally felt I could finish Smith's account of the day the towers fell, the painstaking recovery efforts that followed, and the memories of 343 firefighters who never came home. It still hurt, but it also brought a sense of closure after so many years of avoiding the discomfort. Smith's book is an honest and moving tribute that should be read by anyone who has ever been, or who aspires to be, a firefighter.

This year I also watched some of the many 9/11 documentaries on TV. Not a bad one in the bunch, but CNN’s “9/11: Fifteen Years Later” dovetailed nicely with Smith’s book to provide a true insider’s perspective of what it was like in and around the World Trade Center following the attacks.

FDNY firefighter James Hanlon, who is now an award-winning filmmaker, director, and producer, was a member of Ladder Company 1, Engine 7 working with French filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet on a documentary about a probationary firefighter. On the morning of September 11, while on scene at a gas leak in downtown Manhattan, Jules Naudet captured some of the only existing footage of the first hijacked jet as it crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. The video taken by the Naudet brothers, who were in different locations through much of the initial chaos, shows firefighters scrambling to save people and ultimately themselves, and then trying to come to grips with devastation of unimaginable scale. The resulting footage is in turns chilling, horrifying, sad, inspiring, and profoundly moving. 

To read more about “9/11: Fifteen Years Later” go to:

The effects of 9/11 are still felt today. Thousands of people battle cancers related to their work at Ground Zero. Families have had to move on without their loved ones. The country has been at war for 15 years, and the shadow of terrorism now hangs over daily life.

We must never forget those who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93 near Shanksville, PA on September 11, 2001.

Monday, August 8, 2016

What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?

I don’t know if teachers still make students write essays about their summertime activities, but if they do, there are some young women who will have quite an interesting tale to share.

Fire departments across the country host summer camps for teenage girls, during which they learn what it takes to be a firefighter. They don bunker gear, climb ladders, handle charged hose lines, practice search techniques, learn to use extrication tools, and even do some live fire training. The camps also employ exercises such as rope courses and obstacle courses designed to help young women build confidence and learn to work as part of a team. All the while, participants are exposed to a career field they may already be interested in or they never thought possible.

Camp Ignite 2016 via Twitter

Each camp is a little different. Age ranges and camp duration vary slightly. Some are free, some are not, some are sleep-away, and some are day camps. If you are interested in learning more about fire camps, here are three links to get you started:

Summer Heat Fire Camp for Young Women – Colorado Springs, Colorado

Camp Fully Involved – Concord, New Hampshire

Camp Blaze – Bellvue, Washington

Another resource is the National Volunteer Fire Council, which offers a list of fire camps and junior firefighter academies for both boys and girls: http://juniors.nvfc.org/resources/resources-for-juniors/20-junior-firefighter-camps

Fire camps are a great way for young people to experience a day in the life of a firefighter and decide if it’s a career path that’s right for them. Not all campers go on to firefighting careers, but the lessons they learn serve them well no matter where life takes them.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fires in the Digital Age

Like many people, I have been monitoring coverage of the wildfire(s) in and around Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. These kinds of fires are horrifically fascinating in their sheer size and ability to destroy so much in a short span of time. The descriptions of “hell on earth” certainly seem appropriate.

It wasn’t so long ago that news coverage was limited to what could be found in newspapers, on TV, or over the radio. We could only learn about events through words and images created by others. Today, however, advanced technology, the Internet, and social media create an environment for more personal and in-depth information about any given event, including the Fort McMurray fire.

Case in point: Two videos from home security cameras in Fort McMurray have surfaced that wouldn’t have been possible without advanced technology. These videos are posted at www.cbc.ca but have been widely circulated through mainstream and social media.

Screenshot of security cam footage via www.cbc.ca.
The first, captured remotely via an interior surveillance camera, shows the fire advancing into a home. The other was taken by a doorbell camera and shows firefighters knocking down fire that had worked its way into a hidden space above a covered porch.

Yet another CBC webpage contains multiple videos of the fire as it advanced towards the town – many taken by everyday folks using their cell phones. Just more examples of how modern-day gadgets capture history in ways and from perspectives we couldn’t have imagined just a decade ago.

Screenshot of wildfire advancing into the
town of Fort McMurray via www.cbc.ca.
We are living in a golden age of information for anyone who wants to learn more about just about any topic imaginable. The proliferation of portable camera devices (firefighter helmet cams, GoPros, security cameras, smartphones, etc.) means we will continue to see more up close and personal views of fires and firefighting. These are valuable resources for writers looking to incorporate different aspects of firefighting into their stories, or even to generate new story ideas.

Keep positive thoughts for the residents of Fort McMurray, who face a long road to recovery, and the firefighters who have been working to keep them safe.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Firemen…er, Fire People…er, What Do You Call them Nowadays?

As a woman in the fire service, I heard all sorts of things as people attempted to reconcile the traditional term “fireman” with the female in bunker gear standing before them: Firewoman. Fire girl. Fire person. My mom jokingly referred to me as a “fire chick” and a guy I once worked with tagged me as “fire babe.” (Not quite “politically correct,” but it was always said in friendly jest.)

So what do you call women who fight fires?


Pretty simple, isn’t it? And yet in the 21st century, when women work as astronauts, surgeons, engineers, police officers, combat soldiers and more, some in our society still feel the need to apply gender labels. This is something that has always baffled me. If two people undergo the same training and are doing the same job, why does it matter if that person is a man or a woman?

In March, a reporter from our local Fox affiliate interviewed Rachael Staebell, who is a firefighter/paramedic with the Colorado Springs Fire Department. Staebell hit the nail on the head when she said that the only time gender plays a role in the fire station “is when we’re using the restrooms…Fire certainly doesn’t care if I’m a woman or a man.”

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Overhauling Life

To a firefighter, overhaul is the process of searching for any extension of fire into hidden spaces. It usually involves opening up ceilings and walls, but overhaul can also mean digging through debris to extinguish hot spots. It’s an often demanding, tedious, and unglamorous chore, but one that is important to ensure the fire is completely out and will not reignite.

Lately I’ve found myself in the position of overhauling parts of my life. Similar to fireground operations, I have been seeking out things that hinder or damage my creative process, whether external or internal, and then working to remove or resolve them. It has been a long, tedious, unsettling task that has required some uncomfortable digging into the debris of life. This work will continue for some time to come, but it is something that I feel is crucial to my well-being as a writer and as a human.

(Photo by R. Widmar. Copyright 2015)
At the same time I have been eradicating anything that no longer serves me, I have also been searching for those sparks that fuel creativity – not to extinguish them, but to breathe them back to life. Motivation. Inspiration. Mindfulness.

In the words of Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

Heres to keeping the creativity channel open.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One Meridian Plaza Fire

Twenty-five years ago, on the night of February 23, 1991, a bucketful of oily rags ignited a fire on the 22nd floor of the mostly unsprinklered 38-story One Meridian Plaza office building in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fire claimed the lives of three firefighters and injured 24 others. Nine floors of the high-rise were totally destroyed. The building was eventually demolished in 1999 after years of legal wrangling between the building’s owners, tenants, and insurers.

Fire Operations at One Meridian Plaza
(via thecompanyofficer.com)
Here is a brief summary of the incident.

  • The building’s main and backup power systems failed. Without elevators, firefighters had no choice but to climb 20 flights of stairs to reach the fire.
  • Improperly set valves in the standpipe system left firefighters with no water pressure.
  • Firefighters hauled large diameter hose up those 20 flights of stairs to supply water.
  • Glass from shattered windows fell to the street below, slicing through fire hoses. The damaged hose was replaced and covered with plywood, causing further delays in firefighting efforts.
  • Engineers corrected the problems with the standpipe, but by then incident commanders decided to let the fire burn to the 30th floor where sprinkler systems were still working.
  • The incident went to 12 alarms and the fire burned for 19 hours.
There has been much written about this fire, but suffice to say that the firefighters who were there have never forgotten. The grueling climbs up 20 flights of stairs. Blistering heat and blinding smoke. Dodging falling plate glass in the street outside the building. The ominous radio silence following the final transmission from three lost comrades. It’s the kind of life event that will change a person, and often an entire department.

Memorial to firefighters who died at One Meridian Plaza.
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Like other major fires, One Meridian Plaza became a catalyst for improved fire codes. A year after the fire, the Philadelphia City Council enacted codes requiring sprinkler systems on every floor of high-rise buildings.

To read more about the One Meridian Plaza fire, including interviews with firefighters who were there, check out the following articles. They will give you both personal and technical insights into this tragic incident.

Fire Engineering copy of original August 1991 article

The Meridian Fire 25 Years Later: ‘You Don’t Forget Defeats’

Survivors Will Never Forget Fatal Meridian Fire

One Meridian Plaza High Rise Fire: Twenty Years Ago