Monday, June 13, 2005

Vicarious firefighting: Vertical Burn by Earl Emerson

I've always wanted to be a firefighter. Before I was five years old, I owned three large fire truck toys, one with a working hose, and I was able to bring neighbors out of their houses with my top-of-my-lungs siren imitation. As I got older, I took every opportunity I got to go visit fire department open houses to see all the helmets, hoses, and diamond plate up close.

In doing a little research for a story I am writing, I looked around for anyone who might have written fast-paced firefighting stories, especially looking for those which might have their technical details straight. It was one thing to listen to Eric explain what a flashover was, how it happens, and why it was so dangerous, but it was another thing to "experience" it vicariously through well-written fiction.

I found Earl Emerson, a veteran of the Seattle Fire Department and author of numerous mystery novels. He also has taken the time to write a few specifically about firefighting, and I chose the best one according to Amazon's reviews.

Vertical Burn is a very fast-paced thriller about a firefighter who manages to stumble into and systematically uncover a huge arson plot involving several fire departments and wealthy Seattle businessmen. The book starts fast, speeds up, and then spends all of two pages (out of 400) wrapping things up after the action. This is one of those books you accidentally read 50 pages in thirty minutes, look up, and wonder what in the heck happened outside the world of the book. Great fun! Here's a sample:

He'd forgotten how abrasive and gritty and putrid a lungful of hot smoke tasted. He knelt instinctively to get some of the better air near the floor.

"You okay, John?"

"Are you kidding?" Finney gasped, "I love this stuff!"

"Plug into my bottle. I don't need all this air."

"There's no time. Listen, Bill. I've got a hole. I'm going out to find help. I'll leave my PASS device outside that wall so when help comes, they'll hear it and know you're in here."

"Here, take the radio."

"Quit offering me stuff. I'll be back with help in a few minutes. Breathe slow, old man." Finney stooped down, their faces glowing in the gray yellow soup formed by the light of Finney's battle lantern. It was important that me make eye contact before leaving.

Cordifis chuckled. "Have fun, kiddo." Bill hadn't called him kiddo in years. "And don't have a brain fart and forget where I am."

"I won't."

After Finney had squirmed through the small opening on the floor, he found the next room was a smoky as the one he'd left. He reached back and pulled his MSA backpack into the room, along with the PASS device, which was designed to let out a high-decibel screech when it ceased moving. Jiggling the device would shut off the noise, but it would resume after twenty-four seconds of no movement.

Which way? He tried to recall all the changes of direction they'd put themselves through. Keeping low, he ran his gloved hand along the wall and moved left through a doorway, where he found a room that was hotter than anything they'd encountered so far. He crouched on hands and knees until he found a layer of semi-breathable air, his mouth inches off the floor. He made his way around the wall, around tables, around counters and machines.

Minutes later, he felt a gush of air waft into the building. Before he could think about it, an orange-yellow glow lit up the room.

The incoming air brought oxygen with it. The oxygen mixed with the hot gasses at the ceiling, and the room flashed over, fire roaring above his head. Now, even if he knew which direction to take, he wasn't sure he could get out. At head height, the temperature would be somewhere around twelve hundred degrees.

Because he'd been low, the initial ignition hadn't scorched him, but now the heat was so intense that all he could do was curl up and shield his head, the movement exposing a small sliver of skin between his gloves and his sleeves; he could feel the skin beginning to bubble. He was being burned, but the fact that his wrists didn't hurt scared him. He felt only a strange dullness and an incredible need to close his eyes and sleep. He'd never felt this much heat in his life.

True to the Amazon reviews, the plot isn't exactly air-tight (no MSA pun intended...) and the characters are basic and one-dimensional. The realism of the firefighting mixes unevenly with the larger-than-life heroics (and sinister villainy) of the people involved, but such caricatures serve to accelerate the story somewhat. All in all, I loved the book and I will return to several parts of it for all of the technical juicy bits. What a blast to read!


Gunslinger said...

I prefer Scott Packs to MSA. Draeger is another manufacturer of SCBA's. ISI makes them too, but they suck. That was one thing that I forgot to mention. Big cities like New York, Chicago, Seattle, and others, where a lot of the city is high rise... For some reason, Firefighters never really seem to wear their SCBAs. Its wierd. We werent even allowed to get off the truck at a fire without the damn thing.

rohit said...

An enjoyable read Vertical Burn by Earl Emerson. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and original, this book is going in by "to read" list.