People ask we is firefighting today really any different than it was in the past? After all fire hasn’t changed much since a lightning bolt first slammed into a tree and set it on fire and some lucky Neanderthal stumbled upon it. Has firefighting changed much since that same Neanderthal set his furry apparel on fire after getting too close to the same fire?
Well yes and no. Our primary tool in fire suppression is still water; put the wet stuff on the red stuff and all will be well. So that equation has remained relatively unchanged. Our Neanderthal probably became the very first firefighter by accident when his new found treasure was snuffed by the rains of the thunder storm that accompanied the lightning.
With a little training and grooming (very little grooming) that Neanderthal can still be found today in fire stations across the world. Because firefighting at its root has not changed much over all this time. It still requires men and women that will get in there and do it, do the job.
People that understand the risks, accept the risks, and then disregard that risk. As safe as we try to make firefighting it is still a very high risk endeavor.
From the U.S. Fire Administration web site
Statistics below are compiled for the period January 1 - February 29, 2012.
Number of On-Duty Firefighter Fatalities: 15
My respect and regards to these firefighters and their families. Now all these brave souls didn’t die in fire, some were run over while trying to rescue people trapped in a vehicle, some died in car accidents while responding to and from calls, all died doing the job.
Fire maybe the same but the things that burn are not. I my brief life time and career the contents of a structure fire have changed radically. At the outset of my adventure in fire suppression the average American home was still made out of organic materials, read, wood, bricks, concrete and normal stuff.
The stuff that burned made smoke that was for the most part…smoke. Today homes and structures are made with plastics, composites, and all kinds of manmade space age stuff.
When I went to my first fires if you put on an airpack you got laughed at, pussies wore airpacks, real firefighters “took” the smoke. Your ability to “take smoke” was even on your probationary evaluation paperwork, in the form of check off boxes.
I will always remember crawling along in a huge industrial fire on my hands and knees, masked up and doing a search. It was hot and smoky and then I ran into a pair of black cowboy boots. They were crossed one over the other in a very casual way.
The boots were standing; my eyes followed the boots, to the pants, to a nylon jacket, and then up to the face of Chief Rip. There he stood, leaned back against the wall, his little white chief’s hat tipped back on his forehead and a cigarette clinched tightly in his teeth.
He looked down at me grinned and said “Good job kid, you keep doing what you are doing.” and he popped off the wall and disappeared into the fire. I loved that guy, man did he know how to fight fire, if said I could put hell out I would have believed him and happily followed him there.
He lost his first lung shortly after retiring and died of lung cancer a while after that. They don’t make chiefs like that anymore. I’m sure the anti-smoking zealots out there will blame his tobacco use for his death and I’m sure it contributed to his demise.
The point of that story is twofold, first to honor one of the biggest bad ass firefighters I ever had the pleasure to work with, and second to illustrate that at that point in time he could stand up in a fire, breath the smoke and still go home the next day.
If you did that today you would be a statistic added to the list above. The crap that burns in a simple house fire today produces some of the most toxic gasses and compounds known to man. I mean the stuff Saddam Hussein was trying to make just appears in this environment. Call me a pussy all day long and on weekends, but I wasn’t going in any burning building without an air supply.
Another aspect of modern construction methods are compound wood materials. Things used to be made out of boards now they are made out of wood chips glued together and squeezed into shapes that look like boards. Funny thing is a real board while burning tends to hold its strength as a supporting member longer than laminated toothpicks do.
So if you have that knowledge, that is to say, what a structure is made out of you have a better sense of timing in how long it is before the building falls on your head. Timing is critical when deciding how to attack a fire, if you think you have ten minutes before it collapses then that is a good amount of time to go inside, search and extinguish.
If you think you have two minutes before it falls down then you stay outside. Good officers know this in their bones, they can look at a fire and read the smoke, they have a rough idea of when the place was built, and most important, they have been to a few dozen fires in the same kind of home.
They have seen how that kind of fire behaves and can access a mental database that provides knowledge you can’t find in a book. It takes time to master that skill.
So yeah firefighting is the same as always, and vastly different as well.