Fireproof: Firefighting, Part 1

Today we have a special treat, everyone!  Inquisitive Raven has volunteered to tell us everything that is wrong with the firefighting aspects of Fireproof.  So, without further ado…

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Hi, Inquisitive Raven here. After Part 4 of our Hostess’ deconstruction of Fireproof, I offered to do a critique of the fire/rescue incidents in the movie.  As a result of it kind of exploding out of control, this looks like it’s going to be a three part critique.

First, a little about me, and why I think I’m qualified to offer such a critique. From 1994 to 2005, I was a volunteer EMT at the Manoa Fire Company in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania. Although I was never a firefighter, I did participate in some firefighter drills, and I have some idea of how a fire company operates.

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I also have a sister who is a professional firefighter in a small town (population approximately twenty thousand). If I need information on how pros do things differently from vollies, I can ask her.  Actually, I did ask her one thing. I sent Isis-sama’s question about how fire chiefs are chosen to her because I didn’t think it was likely that professional companies elect chiefs the way the volly company I was a member of did.  Her response was as follows:

We’re civil service so follow their laws:

http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=2457&ChapterID=11

Every 2 yrs a promotional exam is offered. You have to pass to be eligible for promotion, then they look at actual scores, yrs experience, degrees, certifications, vet status, oral interview… But traditionally civil service puts the most emphasis on exams.

So yes, you have to display some degree of knowledge if not actual competence though hopefully, years of experience point to that.  I’d kinda figured out  most of it, but I hadn’t thought about fire service as civil service ergo exams. It seems obvious once that detail is brought up.

One other point: Caleb is not a fire chief. The chief is in charge of Albany’s entire fire department; Caleb is in charge of one shift at one company out of eleven. The characters in the movie are pretty consistent about addressing him as “Captain.” I think the Haverford Township volly companies each having their own chief is a historical artifact from a time when they were completely independent fire associations. Even with unified dispatch and township controlled equipment purchasing, they’re still more autonomous than professional fire services which are municipal departments. My sister’s town has a chief in charge of the whole shebang, and a deputy chief in charge of each shift. Philadelphia’s organization is more complex, but then Philadelphia has a population a couple of orders of magnitude larger than any of the other communities mentioned in this post (1.5 million vs. 20 thousand, 48.5 thousand, and 77 thousand).

On to the main critique: Fireproof is available on Netflix, so I watched the scenes that involved actual fire/rescue activity, fast forwarding through most of the rest of it. I’ll start with some general comments before going on to the specific incidents. I’ll also be linking to websites of some of the five companies in the township I used to run in, and the Philadelphia Fire Department when I think it might be helpful. I currently live in Philly, so it seemed like the obvious professional fire service to refer to. I also looked up Albany, Georgia’s real life fire department, so I could put things seen in the movie in context.

I’ll start out with some general observations. One has to do with cops. Cops show up at incident locations for various reasons. Even if there’s no actual law enforcement required, they can direct traffic and handle crowd control. EMS isn’t supposed to enter an incident location until it’s declared safe by the cops. I didn’t see any cops at all at the fire scene, and they show up late to the accident scene. In fact, the protagonist ends up doing the initial crowd control. In all my time as an EMT, I think I remember at most two occasions when we beat the cops to a scene. They usually got there first. Admittedly, the movie is about firefighters, well, one firefighter, but the occasional shot of a cop at the scene helps paint a picture of a richer world. I can think of three factors affecting who gets to the scene when and why the cops would tend to get there first. One factor only applies to vollies while the other two are applicable to everyone.

The factor that’s only applicable to vollies is the fact that vollies aren’t required to be at the station at all times, so you have factor them getting there into the response time. The firefighters don’t have specific shifts, and while the EMTs do have specific shifts, it’s not always possible to get a minimal crew (EMT and  driver) to sign up for them, nor are they required to be at the station as long as they can get there in under five minutes. In fact, the difficulty of getting people to cover day shifts during the work week is the reason that Manoa started having the day shifts covered by paid paramedics. The issue here is that vollies have jobs outside the fire service. They’re doing this in their free time. For pros, the fire service is their job and they’re expected to be in the station or with their vehicle whenever they’re on duty and not doing something on a call that requires them to leave the vehicle.

The factors that apply to pros as well as vollies are a) the fact that firefighters need to gear up before responding and cops don’t, and b) unless a call comes in before the firefighters get back to base after a previous call, they’re starting from their HQ while the cops are likely to be on patrol somewhere and often have a shorter distance to cover to get to the scene. In fact, in Philadelphia, the cops are first on scene so often that they’re authorized to transport patients under certain circumstances, although it should be noted that the circumstances in question tend to involve gunshot and stab wounds. Basically situations where the patient is in danger of bleeding out, and you know you don’t need to protect the patient’s spine.

Another thing I noticed is that the company in the movie, or at least the protagonist’s shift seems to consist of five people: Caleb, the rookie,  the two black guys our hostess mentions, and one more white guy. In Philadelphia, that’s a ladder crew.  An engine crew is four people. Note, that’s in Philly.  The town my sister works in puts three people on a crew, maybe four for their single solitary ladder. Haverford Township’s apparatus* is capable of carrying anywhere from five to eight crew members. I’m not sure what the minimum crews for any of the vehicles are, but Manoa routinely puts more than the minimums into the field. The company in the movie has two engines and a ladder. One engine and the ladder get dispatched for both calls, with five people total. Sorry folks, that doesn’t work. The Albany Fire Department runs eleven companies with 166 firefighters. That’s not counting administrative, fire prevention, or training personnel. They also have twelve engines and two ladders. By my calculations, assuming the shift structure described in the movie is accurate, they can put three person crews on the two 500 GPM pumpers, and four person crews on the rest of the apparatus for three shifts and have a battalion chief for each shift plus one extra person who I imagine either fills in gaps when people are out or works at the busiest company in the department. With two engines, there should be eleven or twelve people on a shift at any given time at the company in the movie. Even if there’s no crew for the second engine, I’d expect there to be eight people in the company, so why do we never see more than five?  Okay, there seems to be more than five firefighters at the end of the big house fire, but there also seems to be another company present, so I’m assuming any firefighters other than the five known guys are from the other company.

If anyone is wondering why a ladder is being dispatched to an MVA and a fire in a one story building, AFAICT, it’s being dispatched as a rescue. At least one of Haverford Township’s ladders seems to carry a lot of rescue related equipment although it doesn’t seem to function as a full on rescue unit. In fact, it seems to be optimized for high angle rescue, hence things like the Stokes Basket. Makes sense for a ladder, right? And real life Albany doesn’t seem to have a specialized rescue unit. Well, the ladder in the movie seems to be doing the job of a light rescue.

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During the opening credits, the camera pans around the fire house finally tracking down the gear rack to show us the protagonist’s helmet with name and rank, then drops down toward the floor. The first oddity I notice is that the toes of the boots are pointing away from the wall. At Manoa, the boots are placed with toes pointing toward the wall. That’s so firefighters can come into the engine house**, stick their feet in their boots, and start pulling on the rest of their turnout (aka bunker) gear in the shortest possible time. There’s more weirdness with the disposition of the turnout gear later.

For example, at each of the calls, there’s one firefighter who isn’t wearing turnout gear. At the fire scene, he’s at least in uniform, but at the accident scene he’s wearing a blue fire company T-shirt, which tells us who he’s with and all, but probably doesn’t count as in uniform. I didn’t spot him as crew, the first few times I watched the MVA rescue scene. At Manoa, the actual uniforms are saved for special occasions, that volly thing again, but if you’re on a call, you’re in turnout or you’re in an EMS jumpsuit which you don when the call comes in. The only exception is if you respond directly to a scene and are waiting for the apparatus to arrive with turnout gear. In which case, the turnout goes on as soon as it arrives. Fire scenes and extrication scenes aren’t always safe, so it’s a good idea to wear protective clothing… like firefighter turnout. The ambulance also carries helmets and protective coats even if the coats aren’t quite as heavy as turnout, specifically for scenes where our jumpsuits might not be enough protection. So, vollies need to wear turnout at the scene, both for protection and identification. At a scene with pro firefighters, I’d expect everyone to be in turnout except maaaybe the highest ranking officer who would be there purely as an incident commander. Since the IC is staying back and giving order, zie can get away with it. The guys in the movie can’t.

Next post, I discuss the  car on the train tracks.

 

*”Apparatus” is the official term for vehicles used by fire services. I use “vehicles” in these posts a lot, because “piece(s) of apparatus” is more of a mouthful than I want to deal with.

** The engine house is the part of the fire station that actually houses the apparatus.

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Posted on August 23, 2014, in Fireproof, Guest Critique, Movies. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Yo Raven, this leaves me wondering, what’s an MVA? I don’t think you defined that. My first offhand guess would be Motor Vehicle Accident?

    • inquisitiveraven

      Yep. I thought it was obvious from context (car accident) where “apparatus” and “engine house” aren’t so obvious.

  2. Thanks for this!

    My knowledge is from the UK, which obviously does things very differently, and I’m mentioning it here mainly for interest’s sake. For a start we don’t have the huge empty spaces that the USA does, so there’s no problem having all-professional firefighters (and ambulance crews). Generally you get just a single emergency service turning up: if someone calls in a fire but is sure there’s nobody in the building, for example, only the fire brigade will head out there. Obviously if things change then the other services will get called, but it’s quite usual to see firemen putting up tape and asking people to stay behind it.

    A point about clothing: nylon melts. Cotton chars. Professional pyrotechnicians (of whom I am one) never wear synthetics anywhere near the field. I’d expect official t-shirts and things to be cotton for this reason, because anyone standing vaguely near the scene of a fire is at risk of sparks and hot débris.

    • inquisitiveraven

      Actually, there are composite materials that are designed to withstand high heat. Nomex comes to mind, and is used extensively in turnout gear. However, I think we can safely assume that the blue T-shirt and fire company uniform are not made of the stuff.

      Volly fire services have people called “fire police” who are technically part of the fire company, but have police training whose entire raison d’ètre is crowd control and traffic direction at scenes. I didn’t realize until I started working on this post that pro fire services don’t use them.

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