The Firefighting Career: Do You Really Know What You're Getting Into?

April 6, 2008
The way Hollywood portrays us in not the same lifestyle or environment that a typical firefighter experiences.

Do you really know what you're getting into? If it is because of Ladder 49 or Backdraft, you may be in for a surprise!

I would venture many future firefighters and some current firefighters were inspired to get into the fire service because of watching television shows or movies that focused on the fire service. Now while there is not necessarily anything wrong with that, I hope you realize that what goes on in a television show or movie is typically not the same way that things occur in real life. For example, how many times have you seen a car on fire explode on television or in a movie? Almost every time there is a fire.

I have yet to see a vehicle fire that had the fuel tank explode (not to say it won't happen); I have seen tires and air struts explode, but that is not the whole vehicle.

Or, how many times have you seen a fire sprinkler system activate during a building fire on television or a movie and all of the heads simultaneously activate, drenching the entire room? Regarding fire sprinklers, once you have had some training and education on this subject, you'll realize that most often (unless it is a deluge system where all sprinkler heads activate, such as found in a high value area, and not that common) one sprinkler head will contain the fire.

Or, how many fires have you seen on television or the movies that have the building engulfed in flames (fully involved as we call it), but there is perfect visibility in the room? On virtually every structure fire I have ever been to where the structure was on fire (even in one room, a "room and contents fire" as we call them), we have always been greeted by smoke banked from the ceiling down to the floor, forcing us to drop to our knees and crawl through the house, with the hose, searching for any victims and for the seat of the fire to start getting water on it.

The list goes on, and on.

What do these two examples do in terms of public perception? Not much; the public typically believes what they want to believe, based on television, movies, or their real-life experiences (which typically do not involve 9-1-1 calls for service).

The point I'm trying to make is that the way Hollywood portrays us in not the same lifestyle or environment that a typical firefighter experiences. Hollywood does what it does to make money, provide entertainment, and bring in customers. The average firefighter does not experience fires every shift and getting the opportunity to save someone from the clutches of death on an everyday basis either.

This can work for us or against us in the eyes of the public, especially our family and friends that are watching these shows and starting to put an image into their brain of what a firefighter does. Your job, if you accept it, is to start educating yourself on the fire service through formal education and research and start explaining the differences to them. What a firefighter in New York City (especially the Bronx) is going to experience over 10 years is significantly different than what a firefighter in Piedmont, CA, (a small, bedroom community complete surrounded by Oakland, and comprised of primarily multi-million dollar homes and very few commercial occupancies, equally very minimal fire activity) is going to experience over 30 years.

This is not meant to say one firefighter is better than the other, based on where they work. It is what it is; a firefighter working for a big city fire department is going to see more action and gain more experience in a shorter amount of time than a firefighter would working in a community with virtually no commercial occupancies, very expensive homes with sprinklers and other fire protection devices, and highly educated people that typically do not use the 9-1-1 system.

I know some firefighters within the Piedmont Fire Department, and I have nothing but the utmost respect for them and what they do. My point is that where you work will dictate what you are exposed to. Working in a busy, big city fire department will definitely increase your chances of getting injured, exposed to a communicable disease or health hazard, or even killed, as opposed to working in a wealthier community that does not respond to as many calls.

However, don't let your guard down - firefighters get killed in every size and shape fire department, and working in a small, suburban department can also be tragic because of the lower call and fire volume. People tend to let their guard down and think "firefighters only get killed in the big city." I've heard it, especially in my department. Then, when we lost my good friend Captain Mark McCormack in the course of fighting a structure fire on February 13, 2005, we realized, yes, it can happen here.

Odds are a firefighter will be killed in the line of duty in every fire department at some point in the future; the key is whether it is in the near future or 1,000 years from now. I don't say that negatively or pessimistically, I just say that to reinforce to you to not let your guard down and always be highly trained and looking to continue your education and experience in any possible way you can, regardless of what size department you may end up working for.

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Contributing Editor, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department. Steve is an instructor with the Chabot College Fire Technology Program in Hayward, CA, where he publishes a free monthly newsletter, "The Chabot College Fire & EMS News", that is geared toward better preparing the future firefighter for a career in the fire service and the current firefighter for promotion. He is an Executive Board member for the Northern California Training Officers Association, where he is a past president. To read Steve's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Steve by e-mail at [email protected].

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