Why firefighters can't help but smell smoke

When an experienced firefighter walks into a room, even with nothing visible, the smell of smoke grabs our attention

By Mick Mayers

Having been a firefighter for over 30 years, there are certain things that I don't notice about myself that are just "firefighter things."

I walked into a home of a friend the other day and stopped to sniff. She looked at me like I was crazy. I said, “I smell something electric” and began to seek it out. When I found a hot fan on a computer, I just dismissed it as not being much of a threat, but the conversation turned to what it was that I noticed that other people normally don't.


When an experienced firefighter walks into a room, even with nothing visible, the smell of smoke totally grabs our attention. Nothing you can say or do any longer can capture our interest (unless, of course, you were to point at something and say, “Hey, why is that thing on fire?”). We want to know what is burning.

Someone who has been on the job for a while, like a sommelier can detect the faintest hint of cherries or oak in a fine wine, can step into a room and announce that you have a burning light ballast. I can walk outside, take a whiff of the breeze and say, “That smells like burning cedar … must have a brush fire nearby.”

If you happen to be entertaining a firefighter and upon greeting them they push past you and go straight to your kitchen, it's not that they are starving — well maybe that too. It's that we smell something that spiked our attention.

As you stand there thinking, “How rude,” I am usually opening your dishwasher and waving my prize in the air: the deformed plastic bowl lid that was leaning against the heating coil.

What is even more fun is when you can actually stump your colleagues. As a chief officer, I sometimes enjoy showing up on a scene where the crews are still seeking the source of a mysterious odor. Arriving at the Command Post, I'll casually say hello to the officer in charge.

“What's up, Lieutenant?”

“Oh, I don't know, Chief. We have a faint haze and odor in there, but they're having trouble tracking it down. The thermal imager isn't reading anything and we just can't seem to pin it to something.”

That's just an open invitation to show the youngsters how it's done.

When the crews see a white leather helmet walking in the door, all discussion is pointed in that direction, trying to get some feedback from the most experienced guy in the room. I'll listen to it thoughtfully, sniff a few times and make some observations, intended to elicit some Socratic thinking.

“Smells a little dusty,” I'll offer. The firefighters and officers will explain that they have already checked the heating ducts and saw that it wasn't heat strips burning off. “I also smell … hmmm, almost a paper smell.”

At that point, a few of them have ideas of their own and whispering something to their officer, they'll slip off to check the can lights in the living room or to see if there is a hot fan motor near some insulation.

Instead, I head to the utility room. As I enter the small area, the smell is definitely more concentrated. The small entourage is also noticing it and enthusiastically offering ideas. I just smile and ask for someone to hand me a Phillips-head screwdriver. As I open the inspection plate on the water heater, I see where there was a short in the contact which ignited the insulation inside. The fire burned itself out, but it certainly might not have, which could have been disastrous.

Resisting the urge to high-five someone, I simply hand the screwdriver, screws and plate to the officer and remind them to get the serial number and product information for the report. The others are either cursing themselves for not thinking of the water heater or they are mentally filing it away for the next time. Regardless, the scene ends well and the reality is, I wouldn't have found it myself had I not experienced it once before at the feet of the masters.

So the next time you happen to be with a firefighter and they stop and tilt their nose to the air, don't be alarmed. Just ask, “Hey, what's burning?”

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