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13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Firefighters

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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 treesthough 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.

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Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:

1. ELVIS’S NUNCHUCKS

Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.

2. PRINCE’S GUITAR

A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.

3. KURT COBAIN’S CHEERLEADER OUTFIT

Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.

4. MICHAEL JACKSON’S WHITE GLOVE

A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.

5. WOOD FROM ABBEY ROAD STUDIOS

A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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