Sunday, December 31, 2017

What Kind of Year Has It Been?

On December 31 of each year, people like to look back and reflect on the kind of year they had. I thought it might be interesting to explore a little of what firefighters have done during 2017. This somewhat random list is inspired by real-world events. However, keep in mind it is just a snapshot, a glimpse into the world that firefighters occupy. 

  • Put out fires in houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, warehouses, barns, cars, cargo trucks, fields, forests, trash heaps, haystacks, railroad coal cars, and more. 
  • Trained on everything from basic firefighting skills to advanced rescue and EMS techniques. 
  • Helped people experiencing acute or chronic medical emergencies, including chest pain, difficulty breathing, diabetic problems, and traumatic injuries. 
  • Responded to people with minor medical issues because: they were genuinely concerned but didn’t know who else to call; they couldn’t afford an urgent care or ER visit; they could afford medical care but wanted free medical advice instead (yes, that happens); or they didn’t want to pay $30 for a taxi or Uber when Medicare or Medicaid would pick up the tab for a $1,600 ambulance ride (yes, that also actually happens). 
  • Sent apparatus and personnel to assist with major incidents (usually fires) in neighboring jurisdictions – or sometimes clear across the country. 
  • Responded to calls involving suicidal ideations, suicide attempts, or suicides involving people ranging in age from elementary school kids to older adults. (These types of calls are on the rise.)
  • Showed visitors the fire station and apparatus, and smiled at the excitement on kids’ faces when they saw the fire engine or ladder truck up close. 
  • Extricated or disentangled people from nasty wrecks, farm machinery, and industrial equipment. 
  • Taught CPR and first aid to citizens. (Suggestion: Make CPR training one of your 2018 goals.)
  • Performed CPR and other life-saving measures on people of all ages, including children, and provided comfort to distraught family members in the aftermath. 
  • Performed fire safety inspections at businesses and schools. 
  • Fought wildfires and rescued people from natural disasters, some doing so even as their own homes were being destroyed by the same fires and disasters. 
  • Read books to children at schools and libraries. 
  • Rescued animals that got themselves in tough spots, ranging from ducklings in storm drains to livestock stuck in well pits or mud bogs. 
  • Gave directions to people who needed help finding an address. 
  • Conducted fire patrols on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve, the two biggest dates for fireworks, and stood by at fireworks displays for sporting and special events. 
  • Cooked some amazing meals for their crews – and also had some equally amazing kitchen catastrophes. 
  • Counseled juvenile firesetters on the dangers of their actions. 
  • Assessed minor injuries or mental health issues for people in law enforcement custody.
  • Investigated reports of smoke or fire called in by passersby who saw something (or thought they saw something) that turned out to be heavy equipment spewing diesel smoke, a barbecue loaded with extra hickory chips, or a legal fire pit. 
  • Investigated reports of smoke or fire called in by a passerby that did, indeed, turn out to be a fire that needed to be extinguished.
  • Quietly grieved the patients or fire victims they couldn’t save, or fellow firefighters who died in the line of duty, even if those firefighters were total strangers. 
  • Promoted safety messages regarding the importance of maintaining fire and carbon monoxide alarms, completely extinguishing fireplace ashes and cigarettes before discarding them, and not driving while distracted, drunk, or high. 
  • Helped people figure out – quite often between the hours of midnight and five a.m. – that the fire and/or carbon monoxide alarms that had been chirping for hours needed fresh batteries or were outdated and needed to be replaced. 
  • Extinguished fires caused by improperly discarded fireplace ashes or cigarettes. 
  • Provided emergency medical attention to people in nasty wrecks caused by other people who were drunk, high, or too absorbed in looking at their phones to pay attention to driving. 

(See any connection between those last four items?)

And today in Colorado, as has sadly happened too many times in recent years, firefighters were among the many first responders and citizens who lined roads and highways for a procession to honor a law enforcement officer killed in the line of duty. Despite the historic rivalry between cops and firefighters, they are on the same side protecting their communities.

For firefighters, every day is different, often challenging, and filled with highs and lows. But they wouldn't have it any other way.

May you enjoy a safe, happy, and prosperous 2018.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Remembering the Cocoanut Grove Fire

There are two things that will earn a fire a prominent place in the history books: the magnitude of the fire and its destruction, and, sadly, the death toll.

On November 28, 1942 a night of entertainment and fun turned deadly when a fire broke out in Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub. The fire killed 492 people. It’s estimated that only five minutes lapsed between the time the fire ignited in a basement lounge and when it burst through the entrance on the first floor.

Some of the contributing factors to the high number of fatalities:

  • Highly flammable d├ęcor that ignited quickly and allowed the fire to spread rapidly. 
  • Crowds that exceeded the club’s capacity.
  • Exit doors that were locked to prevent patrons from skipping out on their bar tabs.
  • A revolving door that jammed.
  • Lighting that failed, leaving occupants to search blindly in the dark for an escape. 

The Cocoanut Grove fire triggered changes in fire and building codes in the city of Boston and across the U.S. Hospital and medical personnel cared for a large number of burn and smoke inhalation patients, leading to advances in the treatment of these types of patients. The fire is now a case study in many firefighter training programs and college fire science curriculums.

For more comprehensive information on the Cocoanut Grove fire, check out the following resources:

The Cocoanut Grove Fire – a Project of the Cocoanut Grove Coalition

“Last Dance at the Cocoanut Grove” by Casey C. Grant, P.E. (NFPA Journal November/December 2007)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Everyday Heroes

A lot has happened in our country over the past few months. Hurricanes. Wildfires. Mass shootings. Through it all, first responders – firefighters, EMS personnel, law enforcement – answered the call, putting their safety on the line in service to others as they are trained to do. Many people call them heroes; many “heroes” will humbly say they were just doing their job.

(Photos from Wikimedia Commons)
But as is typical, many unsung heroes also emerged in the midst of catastrophic incidents. The images were stunning: People wading through flooded neighborhoods or using their personal watercraft to make rescues. Hospital staff evacuating patients down a street as wildfire raged behind them. Concert goers giving first aid to shooting victims, and using their own vehicles (or commandeering someone else’s) to transport the wounded to hospitals. In the aftermath came efforts to ease the suffering, with citizens of all ages, races, religious beliefs, political leanings, and socio-economic backgrounds doing what they could for people they do not know by donating, volunteering, and fund-raising.

We live in a world that seemingly has gone mad. Random violence, terrorism, politics, scam artists, and general nastiness dominate daily headlines. And yet in the absolute worst of times, ordinary people, often with little or no background in emergency operations, step up to help one another. Neighbors help neighbors. Strangers help strangers. The invisible boundaries that divide us vanish in the name of working together for the greater good. People simply do what needs to be done.

The next time you see police officers, firefighters, or EMS crews, go ahead and give them a friendly wave. Stop and chat with them if they’re not busy. Let them know they’re appreciated.

But then do the same with your fellow citizens in the community. Because they will likely also be there when you need them most.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Firefighting In the News

A person’s perspective about local, state, national, or world events is undeniably linked to the news and information he or she chooses to consume (as well as what media outlets choose to serve us). I gravitate toward emergency services stories and websites simply because that’s the field in which I work. Since I also manage my fire department’s social media, my daily newsfeed is filled with posts about emergency incidents, line-of-duty deaths and injuries, firefighter health and safety issues, training, and much more.

(Photo courtesy of
To give you an idea of what I see every day, here is a sampling of fire service headlines from July 31, 2017:

  • 2 firefighters, 1 resident injured as fire rips through historic Oregon home
  • Boise Firefighters Rescue Drunken Man Stuck in Pipe
  • Detroit firefighter dies after battling back-to-back blazes
  • Elephant Hill Fire in British Columbia grows to 194,000 acres
  • Cal Fire air tanker pilot accidentally drops fire retardant in neighborhood

Even though these stories probably didn’t receive much attention outside of the immediate geographic areas in which they occurred, it’s a safe bet that some firefighters across the country took notice. (I say “some” because, like the general population, not every firefighter pays close attention to the news these days…)

My point is this: If you’re a writer who wants to learn about firefighting for a project, don’t overlook the volumes of information available online and in your social media feeds. In addition to news items from national publications and sites, many fire departments have websites and accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. All of these are great resources for learning about the fire service, what firefighters are talking about, or how a particular department operates. They can also give you an insider’s view into the issues that concern firefighters in different parts of the country (and the world).

I’ve linked to some of my favorites in the Helpful Resources and Blogs Worth Reading sections of this blog, but those lists are by no means a complete catalog of what’s available. With some judicious Google searches you can find just about anything you’re looking for.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Why You Can’t Believe Everything You Read on the Internet

This morning’s foray around the Internet uncovered this handy little survival hack:

“If you're caught in a burning building, remember to stay low.” 

(Photo by R. Widmar - Copyright 2016-2017)
Good advice. Firefighters preparing to enter a burning building will crouch in the doorway to stay below heat and smoke. They often crawl on hands and knees to advance the hoseline into the structure and conduct searches for victims. They also teach kids to “crawl low in smoke” during fire safety presentations.

However, the following explanation that accompanied the survival tip is hit-and-miss in the facts department:

“Most fatalities in a house fire start with smoke inhalation. The fire is rapidly consuming all the oxygen at the top of the room. All the breathable air will be collected near the floor. Crawl on your belly to make your escape.”

Let’s break down these assertions one by one.

1. Smoke inhalation. Statistics show that more fire deaths occur from smoke inhalation, or a combination of smoke inhalation and burns, than from burns alone. (See Fatal Effects of Fire, National Fire Protection Association, 2011).

Smoke is a byproduct of combustion (the burning process). It is composed of particles and toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and phosgene – all nasty stuff that’s not conducive to survival.

A person or animal doesn’t have to be in the same room as a fire to fall victim to the toxins it produces. Out of 85 fatalities in the 1980 MGM Grand Hotel fire in Las Vegas, 80 died from carbon monoxide circulated by the building’s ventilation system. The majority of these victims were found on upper floors of the hotel, well away from the casino where the fire originated. (“Lessons from the Past: MGM Grand Fire,”, Nov. 18, 2010)

The superheated air in a fire can also be deadly. If it’s hot enough, one breath can fatally sear the lungs. Damage to the respiratory system can occur at temperatures of just 302 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius) or above. (Demling, R. H. (2008). Smoke Inhalation Lung Injury: An Update. Eplasty, 8, e27.)

2. Oxygen. Fire consumes all oxygen in a space, not just the oxygen “at the top of the room.”

3. Good air near the floor. Any breathable air will, indeed, be at floor level, but not because of oxygen depletion. Heat rises, so cooler air is found lower in the space. Smoke and other toxins also rise to ceiling level, either carried by heat or because some components are lighter than air. Smoke and heat will accumulate at the ceiling and then bank down to the floor.

A video created by the New Zealand Fire Service shows the progression of an “average” room and contents fire. At about two minutes and thirty seconds into the fire, the room temperature measured 1,491 degrees Fahrenheit at the ceiling and 282 degrees at the floor. (Check out the “virtual reality” fire experience at

4. Crawl low to get out. Crawling low will help a person stay out of the worst of smoke, toxins, and superheated air when trying to escape a burning building.

While the basic advice to hit the deck if you are caught in a fire is sound, the reasoning given in this article isn’t quite accurate. Once again, it all comes down to doing a little fact-checking. Thanks to Google, it took me a lot longer to write this post than it did to find sources to back it up. “I don't have time for research!” is no excuse.

A great resource for writers of all kinds is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Here’s the link to “A Reporter’s Guide to Fire and the NFPA”:

Research. It’s a good thing.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

When People Don't Take a Snow Day

So we had a little blizzard on March 24. My county encompasses a variety of geographical features and includes urbanized, semi-rural, and rural areas. We knew the storm was coming a week in advance; advisories and warnings were broadcast through every media outlet and widely across social media as the storm approached.

Jeep adrift. (via Pixabay)
Predictably (because it happens every year), many people made the choice to get into their cars and venture out in treacherous blizzard conditions anyway. And they became stranded. Some were well prepared. Far too many were not: Vehicles not suited for the task. Low on fuel. Lack of proper winter clothing. Low cell phone batteries (or no phone at all). In a few cases, unprepared adults took small children along for the ride.

These people didn’t just inconvenience or endanger themselves (and their kids). When their vehicles became stuck on icy, snow-drifted roads, they became obstacles for snowplows and further delayed emergency crews trying to reach people with serious medical emergencies.

Firefighters love what they do, or they wouldn’t be in the fire service. But I’d be lying to you if I said they didn’t get a little frustrated being repeatedly called to situations that could have been prevented – such as people sliding their cars into snow-filled ditches after being told to stay off the roads.

So why do people routinely ignore the advice of authorities and put themselves (and their children) at risk?

That’s a question I have long pondered and discussed at length with my peers. None of us are psychologists or experts in human behavior, but we do have some observations gleaned from years of experience.

  1. Even in the “information age,” many people simply don’t pay attention to the news and what’s going on around them. 
  2. They underestimate the weather and driving conditions – a frequent occurrence among visitors and new residents. “I didn’t think the roads would be this bad” is a common refrain heard from drivers who have just been rescued.
  3. They are overconfident in their winter driving abilities.
  4. They overestimate the capabilities of their vehicles. (Owners of front-wheel, all-wheel, and four-wheel-drive vehicles are notorious for this attitude…)
  5. They think nothing will happen this time because nothing has before. In psychology, this is called “normalcy bias,” which is a form of self-delusion and denial about a given situation.
  6. They fail to plan ahead. (Also see 1. and 5. above.) 

Granted, there are instances such as the paralyzing January 2014 storm in Atlanta where people were caught on the roads and would have chosen to be elsewhere if they could. Sometimes a predicted storm ends up being worse than expected and catches a lot of people off guard. “Mission essential” personnel may have a legitimate need to be on the roads during a stormy commute.

All that said, the people who fare best are those who have a preparedness mindset. They watch the weather forecasts and avoid travel during storms. If they must be out and about, they dress properly, ensure their vehicles are up to the task, and carry emergency provisions. In other words, they are proactive about staying safe and not contributing to a larger problem.

I wish more people would think that way.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

So You Want to Be a Firefighter

In September 2016, a columnist who claimed firefighters have “cushy” jobs closed her uninformed tirade by saying, “I want to be a firefighter.” My immediate reaction, shared by many of the commenters: What’s stopping you?

That, of course, is a knee-jerk, “put up or shut up” type of response. But that’s exactly how I feel. You think it’s so easy to become a firefighter? You think you can do just as well or better at the job? Then by all means, go right ahead. I won’t stand in your way.

(Photo courtesy of
The reality is that not everyone can be a firefighter. I don’t say that to be arrogant or malicious; it’s simply a fact. Each of us has different abilities, talents, and skills that make us good at some things and not so good at others. Not every person is cut out for firefighting. Likewise, not everyone can be a teacher, astronaut, mechanic, nurse, carpenter, pro athlete, artist, soldier, or computer programmer.

I’ve met many people over the course of my career who claimed they wanted to be firefighters. Some were simply expressing a wistful dream. Others were “all talk, no action” types who had no intent of following through on their braggadocio. And then there were those who were actually making an effort, doing everything they could to land their dream jobs. I later ended up working with some of those folks, but others came up short in the testing process, sometimes repeatedly.

Firefighting is a very competitive career field. For paid jobs, it takes more than simply declaring “I want to be a firefighter” to actually become one. You need determination, perseverance, motivation, physical and mental endurance – and that’s in addition to meeting a host of other minimum standards. Entrance requirements vary by agency, but all are intended to draw the best and most qualified candidates.

To give you an idea of what it takes to become a paid firefighter (volunteer organizations have different membership processes), here is a sampling of prerequisites listed in recent online firefighter job postings:

1. Must be 18 years of age (21 for some fire departments), possess a high school diploma or GED equivalent, hold a current driver’s license, have a good driving record, and pass a background check. These requirements are pretty standard. 

2. Some agencies have no requirements for certifications while others want one or more of the following:
    • Emergency Medical Technician – Basic (EMT-B) certification. 
    • Emergency Medical Technician – Paramedic (EMT-P) preferred or required. 
    • Firefighter I and/or II. 
    • Driver Operator. 
3. Current Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) or similar physical fitness qualification/certification.

4. College degree may not be required, or it may be “desirable,” “highly desirable;” or required. 

5. No previous firefighting experience required, or some previous experience necessary.

6. No residency requirements (meaning new employees can live anywhere) or the agency may require applicants to live in the designated city or county within a certain timeframe after being hired. 

If an applicant meets the minimum requirements, he or she can then expect some sort of testing process before being hired. Like everything else in the fire service, each department’s hiring process varies, but many rely on similar practices.
  • Written test. Contrary to what some believe, firefighting requires a certain level of intelligence and common sense. Written exams are used to assess an applicant’s basic reading comprehension, writing, math, and problem-solving skills.
  • Physical abilities or physical fitness test. Some agencies incorporate physical testing into the hiring process while others require a Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) or similar certification at the time of application. To see types of fitness tests that incorporate job-related tasks, go to and enter the search term “CPAT” or “Biddle test.”
  • Oral board interview. Candidates are interviewed by a panel, usually three to five personnel from the agency or its municipality. Questions are often designed to assess a person’s integrity, work ethic, moral standards, and temperament for the job in addition to addressing qualifications. 
Successful candidates are then usually placed on a ranked list from which hiring selections are made. Once hired, candidates must then complete a rigorous training academy that can range anywhere between 8-12 weeks (again, each department does things differently) followed by 6-12 months on probation.

So you want to be a firefighter? Then step right up. Fire departments across the country always need new employees. But be forewarned: This is a job you have to earn.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Soft Spot for Old Firehouses

While doing some research this morning, I learned that the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant reopened for business yesterday following a devastating fire in December 2014. I have never been to this dining establishment but am glad nonetheless for the owner, employees, and patrons. One, I hate to see any business shuttered because of a fire. Two, this restaurant is housed in a historic former Chicago F.D. firehouse, and I have a soft spot for old firehouses.

Chicago Firehouse Restaurant fire, December 10, 2014.
Photo by Chicago Fire Department
Old fire stations are not just a place where firefighters store their equipment and hang out awaiting the next call. They are part of history and become as much a part of a firefighter's life as the crew he or she works with.

This particular Chicago fire station was built in 1905 to house a horse-drawn engine and continued to serve its community for decades. Ron Howard partially filmed his 1991 movie Backdraft there, and it became a restaurant in 2000. In 2003, the building was designated as a landmark.

So how do firehouses end up not being firehouses anymore? Older fire stations may not be adequate to house new, larger apparatus and/or more firefighters. Buildings may have developed issues that are cost-prohibitive to rectify such as structural instability and faulty utility or HVAC systems, or they may contain hazardous materials such as asbestos. Response demographics can change over time, forcing the relocation of a fire station to provide better service to a community.

Once firefighters have moved on, some firehouses are demolished. Others find new lives as office space, restaurants, museums, event venues, and even private homes.

Here’s wishing the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant many more years of success.