None of us plan on leaving our irons on (or pressing the wrong button when microwaving popcorn, or finding our cat stuck in a tree), but it’s comforting to know the fire department is prepared for when we do. Firefighters serve everyone, but not many people know much about them beyond what they’ve learned from movies and TV. We spoke with a few members from departments around the country to see what goes on behind the action.
1. FIRES HAVE GOTTEN HARDER TO FIGHT.
You’d think that modern advancements would make firefighting easier, but that isn’t always the case. According to a study conducted by Underwriters Laboratories, newer homes burn eight times faster than those built between 1950 and 1970. One contributing factor is the increased popularity of open floor plans.
"The houses you see today, they’re all open," says Russ Wiseman, a career firefighter of 26 years from Seattle. "There are no doorways, nothing to contain the fire. It’s nice to live in; it’s just not great for firefighting." The open interior also adds more fuel to the blaze by allowing for faster airflow. (Consider that before tearing down the wall between your kitchen and your living room.)
Today’s homes are also furnished with more synthetic materials than they were 30 years ago. These substances burn fast, and they also produce an especially dangerous smoke. "Smoke from things like PVC pipe in plumbing, PVC in electrical wire, or any plastics burning are generally loaded with toxins," says Darren*, who has been volunteering as a firefighter for two years. "They can incapacitate or kill you in short order."
On top of that, the way modern houses are built has made structural failure a greater possibility than it ever was. "A lot of [today’s] buildings don’t depend on the math of a two-by-twelve; they depend on the geometry of a truss," Russ says. "These trusses are really strong when used in a certain way but they tend to fail much faster in a fire."
2. MOST CALLS AREN’T FIRE-RELATED.
Actual fire emergencies makes up just a fraction of most fire departments’ responsibilities. "We’re plumbers, electricians, psychologists, and mechanics—whatever we need to be," says Michael, a retired captain of 30 years who worked for a large fire department in the metro Atlanta area. He's currently working as a volunteer firefighter in his community and as an EMT for another department. "Broken pipes, electrical issues, fall down and can’t get up, medical alarm, weird smell, can’t light your water heater, car broken down … If the dispatcher doesn’t know who to call they send us," he says.
The majority of calls firefighters receive are actually medical, which is why there’s a great deal of overlap between firefighters and Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). "Just about every firefighter working today is at least an EMT. Some are paramedics,” Michael says. "In a lot of communities, especially poorer communities, the citizens don’t have doctors. They use us and the emergency departments as their doctors." And yes, firefighters are also responsible for rescuing cats from trees—though that’s not as much of a problem as TV shows would have you believe.
3. THEY DON’T CARE IF YOU BROKE THE LAW.
Just because firefighters are uniformed government employees who turn up after you’ve (likely) done something stupid, that doesn’t mean they want to get you in trouble for it. "We get confused for law enforcement. Sometimes it can hurt us in our jobs," Michael says. "If we go out on a medical emergency call and illegal drugs are involved, our patients may not be forthcoming about what they took because they think we’ll arrest them."
And while some people are hesitant to talk for fear of the consequences, others over-explain for the same reasons. "When firefighters show up we don't care how your car got 20 feet off the road, managed to go airborne for 30 feet, and land in the middle of someone’s roof. We just want to get everyone out safely,” says Matthew Hagerty, a firefighter of nine years from Michigan. "We already know you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed; you don't need to explain that to us."
4. THERE ISN’T MUCH DOWNTIME.
Even on a "slow" day, firefighters don’t have much freedom to sit back and relax. "The perception that may have been at one time [about] guys sitting around playing cards has long been gone," Russ says. "The day’s pretty well-packed. It’s a challenge to get everything done these days."
Firefighters make time for non-emergency tasks when their schedule permits, which may include checking fire hydrants, conducting fire safety inspections, and completing training exercises. Even when they’re not out and about, there’s plenty to be done at the station as well. "People tend to think we are not working when they can’t see us," says Robert, a 12-year firefighter working in Connecticut. "We maintain our station and equipment. Just because you don’t see us doesn’t mean we aren’t working."
5. BUT THEY FIND WAYS TO HAVE FUN.
Being a firefighter is one of the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting jobs there is. Perhaps it’s for this reason that firefighters value the importance of having fun when they can. "I’ve never had a job where people had as good a time. … We just loved to laugh and make fun of each other," Russ says.
Though never a prankster himself, Russ recalls several pranks that department members would pull on each other back in the day. "They’d put the IV bag in the ceiling with the needle dripping down so it’d drip on someone’s head at night. Or they’d send a rookie for some fictitious tool on one of the rigs and they would look for hours … There’s a story of a guy who got this new car and was bragging about the mileage. When he wasn’t around they would put more gas in his car until he was getting close to 50 miles a gallon. Then they start siphoning gas out the next month."
In addition to the harmless pranks, there are also stunts that more closely resemble something you’d see in a fraternity. "There’s stuff you can’t even talk about," he says. We’ll let you use your imagination.
6. THINGS REALLY DO GET CRAZY AROUND A FULL MOON.
You may have heard an old wives’ tale about bizarre and dangerous things being more likely to happen during a full moon. People who work in emergency services don’t just believe this—they plan ahead for it. "If there’s a full moon out, we’re busier than heck. That’s not superstition. That’s an unwritten rule," Matthew says. "There was a full moon last week and I ran my butt off for three days in a row."
Matthew says the calls that come in during a full moon vary too widely to point to one specific cause. The examples he gave included car accidents and psychiatric issues, although there was no mention of werewolf encounters.
7. IT ISN’T WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE IN THE MOVIES.
A still from the movie Ladder 49, courtesy of Buena Vista.
Hollywood loves to show scenes of heroic firefighters racing through flaming buildings, but real firefighters say that if their work was accurately portrayed, there wouldn’t be much to look at.
"Most of the time we are working in low-to-zero visibility. TV and movies try to show you everything," Robert says. A lot of the "drama" firefighters experience in a burning building comes from making sense of their immediate surroundings. Matthew recalls one time he tried to climb a chair mistaking it for a staircase he’d just passed, and another incident when he stumbled over an open balcony and was convinced he’d fallen through the floor.
"There’s never pretty bright flames around to help you look for stuff," Russ says. "It’s hot. It’s incredibly smoky. It’s easy to get disoriented."
Another big aspect the movies always get wrong is the importance of a firefighter’s air pack. "I can’t count the number of times I see in movies and TV shows a firefighter running in and pulling someone out holding their own mask on the victim’s face," Matthew says. "While this looks heroic it’s really not realistic. You can’t help anyone if you can’t breathe yourself. They would be instantly overcome with heat, smoke, and poisonous fumes and would then need rescuing themselves."
8. YOUR SOUNDPROOF CAR MAKES THEIR JOB HARDER.
Next time you see someone wait too long to pull over for a fire engine, their fancy car may be to blame. Cars are better at keeping out sound than ever before, which can be a source of frustration for firefighters in a hurry. "The car companies spend millions advertising the fact that their cars are soundproof and have awesome sound systems. Unfortunately, that also cancels out the sirens and horns on the trucks," Michael says.
"Add to that people wearing headphones, talking on the phone, eating, and generally being distracted and they just don’t acknowledge us." So even if your car’s stereo system can reach 170 decibels, that doesn’t mean you need to prove it to the rest of us.
9. THERE IS A (FRIENDLY) RIVALRY BETWEEN THE FIRE AND POLICE DEPARTMENTS.
The rivalry between local fire and police departments is another trope that’s often played up on-screen. But this idea has some basis in reality. "The rivalry is real," said Mike, who’s been a firefighter for four years, in his Reddit AMA. "I have respect for what they do, but our rivalry is based on who each other thinks is in charge [when called out to a scene]."
The NYPD and FDNY, which have more overlapping services than most city police and fire departments, are notorious for their historic beef. While this sometimes takes the form of friendly competitions, like the annual NYPD-FDNY charity hockey game, it's also been known to get violent—like when that same hockey game devolved into a straight-up brawl in 2014.
This competitive attitude is rarer in quieter, rural areas. Even in big cities, members from both departments know that ultimately they’re on the same team. "I guess I would liken it to military rivals," Robert says. "We like to tease each other but at the end of the day we fully support each other."
10. THEY HAVE TO PAY FOR THEIR OWN FOOD.
Earlier this year, a video was uploaded of what appears to be a man chastising a group of firefighters for having the nerve to go grocery shopping on his taxpayer dime. Yes, firefighters need to buy food to eat just like the rest of us, and they also dig into their own pockets to do so.
"We pay for all of our food at the station," Michael says. "Many citizens have made comments to me and my guys about 'What are we buying you for supper tonight?' when they see us in the store. I have to correct them and inform them that we buy all of our own food."
11. HANDLING THE HOSE NOZZLE IS A PRIVILEGE.
Ask a preschooler the best part about being a firefighter and they might tell you it’s getting to spray the hose. This is something the grownups find fun as well, and for that reason not everyone gets to do it right away. "The big thing is who gets to be on the nozzle. That’s the top position; that’s where a lot of the fun is," Matthew says. "So [when I was] this new kid straight out of college coming into the department, even though I had experience, if I touched that nozzle I’d basically be committing a cardinal sin."
Getting to drive the fire engine isn’t half-bad either. Rob says that as a firefighter, "there's a lot of work and training involved and there's an inherent risk of death or great bodily injury—but they let us drive a big red truck with a siren, so it all seems worth it for us."
12. THEY DON’T ALL LIKE THE FACT THAT IT’S A BOYS’ CLUB.
Despite the fact that nearly half of female candidates pass the physical tests, less than 4% of today’s firefighters are women. This is something many people within the industry would like to see change. "I think a common misconception is that women aren’t or can’t become firefighters," Matthew says. "I would like to see this change as there are a lot of women that can do this job very well, and in some cases better than men."
America’s first known woman firefighter, a slave named Molly Williams, became a part of the Oceanus Engine Company #11 nearly 200 years ago. Women have been working as firefighters ever since, and there were even two entirely female-staffed departments in Illinois for part of World War II.
13. THEY’RE A FAMILY.
After working together in high-pressure situations for shifts lasting up to 24 hours, it doesn’t take long for members of the department to form a tight bond. "Some guys become very close. We truly become a family," Robert says.
Michael recalls the dynamic in his own department: "We meet each other’s families, have birthday parties for our kids when we have to work, share holiday meals. We talk about each other’s lives, the older guys trying to give advice to the younger guys. Guys will tell each other things that we wouldn’t tell our wives or families," he says. "We see and experience things on this job that the average citizen wouldn’t be able to handle, but since we all see and experience the same things, we can talk about it."*Name has been changed.All photos courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.