Robin Widmar spoke about firefighting at the November Write Brain, with the goal of sparking the imagination while keeping writers grounded in fact.
“Firefighting is a complex subject,” Robin told us. “Every fire is different. Every fire department is different. Every fire fighter is different. Do your research!”
With a fifteen-year career as a firefighter, Robin has an AAS degree in Fire Science Technology. She covers the Falcon Fire Protection District for The New Falcon Herald. Robin went to her first fire at the age of four, and her father, stepfather, and great-great-grandfather were firefighters.
Robin finds that fictional depictions of fires often miss the mark. Giving numerous examples from television, movies, and novels of what works, and what doesn’t, she cautioned the Write Brain audience that “entertainment rarely meets reality.”
Sometimes Hollywood gets it right. Robin cited scenes from the television program Chicago Fire showing an exhaust hose on a fire truck inside the fire station. That was a realistic touch she said firefighters would appreciate. The trucks must have their exhaust vented to the outdoors because the station living quarters are basically attached to a garage. Another scene aimed a camera through the front windshield of a fire engine to show what the ride through city streets is really like.
On the downside, she said firefighters would not dress as casual as the characters on the television show. The tight tank tops, unbuttoned shirts, and sexy poses would not be found in a real fire station.
To encourage writers to get their fire related scenes correct, Robin presented Five Myths of Firefighting.
Myth One: Fires depicted in fiction are rarely hot and smoky.
Reality: She showed us pictures from movies, and from actual fires. The myth shows neatly spaced patches of fire, great visibility, and a firefighter not wearing an air mask. Reality is that visibility can be nearly zero due to thick, dark smoke, and the temperature can be 1000 degrees at the ceiling level.
Robin explained rudimentary fire science to us, while cautioning us that the subject is incredibly complex. She told us a story involving her training as a volunteer firefighter, when her chief told her to spray water on a burning Volkswagen as a lesson. Robin did, and the engine flared into white sparks and flame. Old VW engines were composed of a metal that reacted with water when it burned. Someone not trained in the science behind firefighting might not know that some metals are as much a source of fire fuel as wood, gas, or paper.
Fire dynamics are dramatically different today than a century ago. Robin asked us to consider the time period and setting of our fictional fires. There are new synthetic materials inside houses, contained in furnishings, carpet, electronics, and even building materials, that put off toxic gasses when burning. Robin explained how modern floor joists and rafters may be built of lightweight materials that burn more quickly than solid wood components used in older structures.
Myth Two: The Hollywood image of fire is of bright, uniformly shaped and sized flames leaping out of windows. Reality: Robin showed us photos of structure fires. One of the “reality” photos was a house with thick smoke rolling out of the upper level. Firefighters must learn how to read fires and smoke in order to know what kind of fire conditions they are dealing with.
Myth Three: Cars explode on impact, or easily catch fire.
Reality: The reality is that cars rarely explode or burst into flames in a crash. To achieve the Hollywood effect, cars are rigged with explosives, and detonated to get that special effect.
Myth Four: Arson fires are always successful.
Reality: While many arsons do succeed, the reality is that some arsonists don’t always understand fire dynamics. Fuel, oxygen, and heat must be in proper proportion. Robin described an attempted arson fire where the building was too air tight to provide the oxygen needed for the fire to progress. Firefighters found gasoline soaked carpets that had not ignited.
Robin said that investigating a fire is a topic that could fill an entire talk. She touched briefly on several aspects of fire investigation. - Arson is a crime that destroys evidence as it progresses. - Who investigates fires? It depends on the jurisdiction, since some fire departments have their own investigators, while others use investigators from the local police or sheriff’s department. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) will investigate fires involving federal property. ATF will also assist local departments when requested, particularly when a department lacks investigative resources. - Fire behaves in specific and predictable ways, which helps fire investigators determine the cause and where the fire started. - Dogs can be trained to detect accelerant use. Crime labs can analyze samples for the presence of an accelerant.
Myth Five: Firefighters are flawed but attractive and buff men and women.
Reality: Robin did not dispel all of this myth. Firefighters carry fifty pounds of basic gear, and can be loaded down with an additional fifty pounds of equipment. They run up ladders and stairs carrying all that weight. They do need to be buff. And of course, like all humans, they are flawed.
The reality is that firefighters tend to be pranksters and jokers, to relieve the stress of the job. They come from all walks of life, and deal with the same issues as everyone else. They are devoted to their families, communities, and crews. Firefighters may be saints or sinners, just like the general population. There is no stereotypical firefighter.
At the end of her presentation, Robin reviewed some terminology. Much depends on what part of the country your story is set in.
- Sometimes the driver of the fire truck is called a driver engineer, sometimes a driver operator, and in some areas, a chauffeur. Do your research.
- The correct term is firefighter, not fireman. Unless, of course, your story takes place in a time period when women were not typically working in this field.
- A fire station is not the same thing as a fire department.
- There are many different types of vehicles. “Fire truck” is a generic term applied to different kinds of vehicles. Depending on their function, the size of the community, and the area of the country, there are fire engines (also called pumpers) that pump water, and ladder trucks equipped with aerial ladders, ground ladders, and other equipment.
- Not all fire vehicles are red. Robin showed photos of red, red and white, blue and white, and yellow vehicles. Again, it depends on the particular location in which your story takes place. Do your research.
- Firefighters wear self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) which hold compressed air, not pure oxygen. Think about it. Oxygen is fuel for fire, and a tank of oxygen would be incredibly dangerous.
Robin’s knowledge and experience would fill several Pikes Peak Writers talks. Let’s hope she finishes her Firefighting for Writers book soon!