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Prevention First 2004

The Writers Guide to Fire and Arson

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Over more than 30 years as a firefighter and Cause & Origin Investigator for the Rochester NY Fire Department, Lt. Robert E. Crandall (Ret.) has been asked many questions about fire and arson. Some of the most interesting come from writers who want to get the details right. Here are the answers to their most frequently asked questions.

Q: What’s the most misleading thing that television and movie audiences see during a fire scene?
Crandall: The scene. By that I mean that on film, fire is bright and lights up the scene. In real life, structure fires produce incredibly thick, black smoke. You literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. For a movie to be realistic, the audience would be looking at a black screen for most of the scene. That wouldn’t make audiences happy, so I guess I understand why Hollywood does that. But it reinforces a dangerous misconception about what it’s like to be in a fire.

Q: Why is that so dangerous?
Crandall: When I ask people, “What will you and your family do if you have a fire in your home?” they usually say, “Duh, we’d run outside.” They’re making so many assumptions: that they’ll be able to see, that they can and should be running, that everyone in their household will know what to do, and that even if it’s dark their own home is so familiar that they’ll quickly be able to make their way out.

First, as I said even in daytime sometimes the smoke from a fire makes it hard to see. And if the fire happens at night and you wake up confused and in the dark, things are even worse.

Second, if smoke is filling a room or hallway the last thing you want to do is go running through it—smoke can get into your lungs very quickly, especially when you’re breathing hard from panic and exertion. You need to get down on the floor, where the air is fresher, and crawl low under the smoke.

Third, if you’ve never practiced are you really sure everyone in your home knows what to do and can do it if there’s a fire? Have you tested your smoke alarms? Can everyone in your home hear the alarms? Can everyone respond? Do you have elderly family members? Do you have children? Every parent should watch Home Fire Drills: Does Your Family Know What to Do? to get a realistic idea of how even very bright kids who’ve received fire safety education may not know what to do if they haven’t practiced.

Finally, your home can become a very unfamiliar place in the dark and in a stressful situation. How many steps is it to the bottom of the stairs? Does the front door have a deadbolt? Which way does it turn? Firefighters practice fire simulations every week, and they can still become disoriented in a smoke-filled building. You really need to think through, and then practice, a home fire drill at least twice a year.

Q: Writers spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer. Until we can kick ourselves into actually practicing a home fire drill, what’s the best way to find out how well we’d do at escaping our house in a fire?
Crandall: Try this. Get up from the computer and stand facing the nearest exit. Now close your eyes. Turn around in a circle three times, first to the right and then to the left. Keeping your eyes closed, point toward the nearest exit.  Now open your eyes. If you’re pointing toward a framed portrait of your mother on the opposite wall from the door, you know how well you’d do.  Now go practice.

Q. Point taken. Back to fire scenes in TV and movies. What’s the most misleading thing we see on screen about car fires?
Crandall: The gas tank exploding just because the car is burning. It’s actually very rare. The whole car can burn to a crisp and the gas tank just won’t explode. In 30 years I’ve only seen it happen once, and that was because of a unique combination of unusual factors coming together.

What does sometimes explode is the tires. They contain a lot of air pressure. A tire on a burning car exploded right next to me once. I wasn’t hurt, but the sound of the explosion nearly gave me a heart attack.

Q. In mysteries and thrillers, characters set fires believing that all the evidence will be destroyed. Is it?
Crandall: There is nearly always something left, often some really surprising things. I’ve seen a single match in a matchbook left sticking out and set on fire, and yet the rest of the matchbook didn’t burn. The flame from the single match took off in another direction. I’m sure the person who set that fire assumed the whole matchbook would be consumed and there would be no trace. Fire is a very, very unreliable partner in crime.