Hollywood is usually known for hyperbole, but in the case of fictional firefighting, they're guilty of toning down the fireworks. For instance, as Senior Captain Calvin Mendel explains, while you can actually see flames in "TV fire," all the naked eye can see in a real blaze is putrid black smoke.
And you know those tanker explosions in the movies? A mere spark compared to the real thing. To determine if they're standing a safe distance from a propane tanker in danger of igniting, firefighters use what they call a rule of thumb: They hold out the digit in front of them, and if it doesn't cover the entire scene, they're too close. (The BLEVE, or boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion, from a propane truck can reach 1,000 feet in the air, and a mile in all directions.)
A propane fire simulation is just one of the demonstrations for public viewing at the Houston Fire Festival. In past years the festival was called a fire muster and included opportunities for various departments to show off their skills and equipment by competing with each other. But the event has since evolved into more of a public relations affair, and crowds have grown so large that the festival is moving this year from Milam Street to the department's training academy. There, firefighters will demonstrate their expertise in rappelling (a technique often used to reach stuck express elevators in downtown high-rises), dousing fires and prying open cars with the Jaws of Life.
One demo headed by Mendel will explain the principle of the flashover, a common event that is responsible for killing more firefighters than any other hazard. Once a fire has been burning in a corner for three to four minutes, everything in the room becomes so hot that it spontaneously combusts. This is why it's not wise to run back into a burning house to grab your prized record collection (an act that was already responsible for the deaths of three Houstonians this year).
On the job, Mendel's seen it all. He once responded to the 911 call of a woman who just wanted her venetian blinds adjusted to get rid of the glare on her TV. But he's also seen a woman burn to death right in front of him as he fought to remove the burglar bars from her window. "It's the best job in the world," he says, "but the closest thing to a war you'll experience without actually going to war."
His occupation has found renewed respect from Americans in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Knowing that it took some office workers an hour to descend 80 flights of stairs, it's impossible to fathom the task of the poor souls determined to lug sacks of equipment up that same distance into danger. According to Mendel, going into a burning office building is still the only way to reach the fire. It's either that, or sit back and let it burn. Suddenly, a whole lot of us feel better knowing there are people out there willing to do that.