Following the interview with our local Police Chief, I next went to the fire department. I use a lot of book research in my mysteries, but talking with experts is really helpful in getting the details right.
I interviewed Chief John Cratty in 2011 when he was the Fire Chief of our little town of 10,000. His work in fire departments encompasses 33 years. Before coming to Monmouth, he began his career in my home town. There, in Galesburg, Illinois, Chief Cratty worked for 31 years as a firefighter, captain, assistant chief, and fire chief (the latter from 1994-2009.) In 2010, he was named Fire Chief in Monmouth, and he held that post for two years before he went on to the position of City Administrator. It's obvious that public service is in his blood.
I was particularly interested in the fact that Chief Cratty had been an investigator with the fire departments because information about why fires start and how they spread was central to writing my mystery, Three May Keep a Secret, coming out in November, 2014.
Besides asking Chief Cratty for specific information, I also had him read a description in my mystery and tell me if it sounded accurate.
We met at the north fire station in town, and I was able to see the forty pounds of equipment the firefighters wear, and the facilities and trucks they use.
I asked Chief Cratty about three areas that were crucial to getting the facts right in my novel: (a) What happens when small towns like Monmouth have house fires in the country? (b) How would such a fire-fighting scene look? (c) What are some of the basics of fire investigation?
He explained that small fire departments cooperate when a fire breaks out in the
country on a farm or in a family home. The various departments have mutual aid agreements and the dispatcher who receives the call about a fire will know what district the fire is in and "drop" the alarm. Volunteer firemen and off-duty firemen have cell phones that get automatic texts or audio pagers that alert them about such a fire. Each department responds to the location, but the first department that arrives takes charge. Then the Chief of that department can continue being in command or he can let the Chief whose jurisdiction the fire is in take charge. A "box card" is also available for the fire location so the Chief can check what equipment is coming and what is available. The various departments have quarterly meetings to share training and update information.
Because my mystery takes place in the small town of Endurance, I needed to know how this works. In my mystery, a fire breaks out in a home a few miles from town. TJ Sweeney, police detective, goes to the fire, and I needed to be able to describe what she saw when she arrives that night.
Chief Cratty told me that, when going to a fire, life safety is the number one concern. Their second concern is saving
property. They set up the trucks with the engines going, water hoses on the fire. Then the firemen go inside, trying to "push" the fire out. Pushing the fire includes cooling it with water while trying to drive the fire out openings like doors and windows from the inside of the house. This makes more sense than pushing the fire from outside the house to other areas of the house that are not on fire. If it's a highly offensive fire, they try to save property. If it is a defensive fire they try to contain it from other "exposures" (buildings.)
He gave the example that if they get to a fire and see flames in the first floor rooms, and the front and side windows are in flames, two people can go in with one hose and push 150-200 gallons of water per minute on the fire. They work in teams and the Chief keeps track of who is where and which team is at which location. Sometimes they need to call the gas company if they need to disconnect gas, and then they can lose minutes of time waiting for that disconnection.
The individual firefighters' masks have transmitters so they have radio
communication to the command center on one channel (dispatch frequency) and communication to the other men on another channel (fire ground frequency.) In the end, the Chief has to decide whether to "salvage" (use tarps to cover furniture and keep out water damage), or "overhaul" (cut into the walls and ceilings to check the electrical switches and see if there is smoldering.)
Once the fire is contained and secondary flare-ups are put out, an investigation begins to determine the origin and cause of the fire. This can take days or weeks. The Monmouth Fire department can pinpoint
the origin. If there is a fatality, they notify the local and state police and the state fire marshal's office. In all fires, the MFD does the initial investigation and then shares the information with the insurance company. As far as the cause, they rule out many potential causes first. Lightning? Was the electricity off or on? Propane tanks? candles? Cigarette smoking? The origin is often easy to spot because of a vee ("V") pattern, sometimes on wood trim. The deepest char has burned the longest, and so that may be the start of the fire.
I asked specifically about arson. Chief Cratty said that this kind of fire is usually very aggressive, and if it has multiple spots of origin, it is often from a gasoline pour. A reverse pour means the arsonist puts gasoline in various spots and lights one or more, hoping all will catch fire eventually. The heat from the fire can cause carpet fibers to melt, and if some of the spots with fuel don't ignite it leaves a melted fiber pattern on the spot, and the odor of gasoline is still present for sampling.
All of this information was important to me because fire is a huge ingredient in my novel. Fire is a key part of both character development and the plot. Before speaking to Chief Cratty, I had done quite a bit of book research on fires and arson, but I didn't know exactly how small town fire stations operated. Former Chief Cratty was an excellent source of information to make sure my novel's fire details were accurate.