A Firefighter’s Guide to Fighting Dragons

Here’s the weird place where my real life and fantasy overlap.

When I set out to write my debut novel, Smoke Eaters, I knew I had to set it in the future where technology would have advanced to a place where firefighters could battle dragons and not get completely creamed.

But lately I’ve been thinking how I, as a modern day firefighter, would be able to combat dragons.

The film Reign of Fire beat me to the concept of placing dragons in the “real world.” Just like in my novel, dragons have returned from beneath the ground and have been wreaking havoc on near-future Earth. While I love the movie (I even bought the videogame) they do plenty of reckless things I can’t justify. A clear example of what not to do is when Matthew McConaughey leaps off a tower, swinging an axe at an oncoming dragon. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but­—spoiler alert!—the dragon eats him and flies away. The same thing happens when McConaughey’s people attempt to subdue a dragon by binding its wings in chain nets…while falling from the sky.

Cool scene. No sense.

(Technically, all the monsters in Reign of Fire are wyverns, but we won’t get into that.)

So how would firefighters battle fire-breathing scalies?

Francis Brannigan, a famous fire instructor whose last name I gave to my main character, said “Know your enemy.” Well, our enemy has claws, teeth, wings that can help it escape and terrorize the next town over, and an endless supply of fire.

That’s a pretty formidable list. What do firefighters have?

We enter superheated atmospheres wearing heat-resistant Kevlar and other protective gear, such as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs) so we don’t inhale any toxic smoke. We also have all sorts of tools to battle a blaze: high-pressured water streams, pike poles to break open ceilings, even positive pressure ventilation fans to remove smoke from the structure.

All of this is great, but it doesn’t turn us into Wonder Woman so we can dance among the flames. Plenty of firefighters have lost their lives from heat, smoke inhalation, falling out of windows, and buildings collapsing on top of them. They’ve also been severely injured by steam burns when the heat inside a structure turns their aqueous weapon against them.

Every firefighter has to have a good knowledge of pyrology and building construction if they plan on staying alive.

A house fire’s temperatures can reach well over 1100 degrees Fahrenheit. If not put in check, a process known as flashover takes place, where the contents of the structure reach their ignition temperature at the same time and everything catches fire—including you if you’re inside.

Imagine that kind of power shooting from a scaled monster’s mouth.

Firefighters stress situational awareness. It’s very easy, especially in tense situations, to get tunnel vision and fail to be aware of everything that’s going on. In The Hobbit, if Bilbo hadn’t been alert enough to notice the bare patch on Smaug’s underside, Laketown would have been a lot worse off.

Now, when it comes to fighting a dragon I see firefighters utilizing three main tools: axes, pike poles, and foam. For fire to exist, it has to have every component in what is called the fire tetrahedron. Fire needs fuel, heat, oxygen, and a chemical chain reaction. If you take out any one of those, the fire is whooped.

Foam smothers fire and is very slow to evaporate. It’s sticky, and when we pump it through our hose streams there’s a ton of it. This would be the perfect way to ensure a dragon stops shooting flames at you. The trick is to shoot it into the dragon’s throat.

Axes and pike poles, of course, do the dirty work of making sure your dragon doesn’t live to burn another day. Pike poles are long and can provide distance between us and the dragon, but we have to be very accurate in where we pierce. What axes lack in reach, they make up for in how much damage they can do.

We also have chainsaws, but you don’t have to worry about an axe misfiring or spilling fuel.

Now, we’ll move into our plan of attack. It’s a six step operation in order of priority.

1. Evacuate and Rescue

Human life is the number one priority in any dragon situation. True, there won’t always be incidents involving trapped people, but we need to make sure everyone is safe before going after the dragon.

The human eye is naturally drawn to light and movement. It’s easy to focus on the enemy, but getting innocent people out of the way has to come first.

I’d also evacuate neighboring houses or businesses.

2. Isolate the Dragon

We don’t want the dragon gallivanting all over the place and causing even more damage. The skydivers in Reign of Fire at least had the right idea in removing the dragon’s means of escape. I’d take the wings out first before anything else. However, we have to be aware that the dragon’s smoke will accumulate and we only have so much air in our SCBAs. The smoke eaters in my novel have the advantage of being able to breathe toxic smoke. Regular people like you and I can’t. Also, we eventually won’t be able to see anything because of the smoke “filling the box.”

You can’t isolate the dragon until you find it. When I enter a house fire, I’m not able to pull a Kurt Russell in Backdraft and walk in without an air mask and be able to see everything clearly. Even with a flashlight, you can’t see a damn thing in a smoke-filled house. That’s why we carry thermal imaging cameras that allow us to see heat signatures and where the seat of the fire is located. We pressurize the house with fans to clear out the smoke as soon as possible and use fire streams to prevent the blaze from spreading. Outside crews wet down neighboring houses so the radiant heat won’t set them on fire as well.

3. Be Aggressive.

While you should keep safety at the forefront of things, this isn’t the time to beat around the bonfire. Attack hard. Attack fast. The dragon won’t give you any quarter. Slay it before it slays you.

While I’m on the subject: Dragons are not your friends. Sure, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern show a wonderful look at what it would be like if dragons could be ridden and befriended. They’re great books.

In my opinion, however, friendly dragons are a crock.

Firefighters teach young children about the dangers of playing with matches and lighters. I can’t imagine having to teach them that the dragon egg they found in the cave by the beach will not hatch a friendly Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon. It will more likely unleash a hungry scaly that will bite their head off and toast the rest for later.

4. Work as a Team

Yes, the dragon is bigger, stronger, and more incendiary than us, but we have something it doesn’t—people at our side. Firefighting is a team effort. We highly discourage freelancing (going off and doing your own thing without telling anyone). It gets people killed.

Another thing: some positions aren’t considered glamorous or heroic, but they’re just as vital to slaying the dragon, even if they’re not the one pushing the blade feet deep into scalie flesh. Know your role and stick to it. Everyone is counting on you. Only in Skyrim can you Fus Ro Dah your way through dragons all on your lonesome.

5. Know When to Bail

You can’t slay a dragon if you’re dead. The first person to look out for is yourself, then your crew. No dragon is worth losing your life over. Obviously, some circumstances require a good amount of risk. If a five-year-old kid is in danger of getting gnashed and burned, we’d do our damndest to prevent it.

The term to keep in mind is: risk a lot to save a lot, risk little to save little. In other words, I’m not going to stay inside a fire when there are no victims to rescue, and collapse or flashover is imminent. Life comes before property, and that includes my life.

Aside from that, we need to be vigilant of factors that could end us. Firefighters have to be aware of the amount of air in our bottles, the signs of flashover and backdraft, and especially signs of structural collapse.

Some may think that firefighters are more balls than brains, but I’m here to tell you that knowledge is our greatest weapon. Many fire departments won’t hire you unless you have at least an associate’s degree. A smart person knows when it’s time to get the hell out.

6. Clean Up

The dragon’s dead, but our job isn’t done.

There’s nothing worse than somebody showing up in your town, doing way more damage than the dragon they’re fighting, and then leaving you with a bunch of dragon poop to sweep up and houses to rebuild.

Firstly, don’t make things worse. Firefighters have tarps to cover furniture and collect debris, and water vacuum backpacks to suck up water. All of this is called salvage and overhaul. Firefighters are very mindful of public opinion and we relish having such esteem in the eyes of the people we protect.

After we’re sure the dragon is out of commission, we’ll do our part to help clean up the mess. It’s what separates heroes from assholes.

I consider fire to be a living, breathing thing. It kills and eats. It ruins lives and rips families apart—just like a dragon. When firefighters are called to respond, it’s on people’s worst day of their lives, and we have to be at our best. In a way, I’ve fought a few dragons in my time, made even more mistakes. But I learned from them. And the best thing I’ve learned is this: train like your life depends on it. Because it does.

Sean Grigsby is a professional firefighter in central Arkansas, where he writes about lasers, aliens, and guitar battles with the Devil when he’s not fighting dragons. His first novel is Smoke Eaters, available from Angry Robot Books.

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