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Writing Public Safety Noir: A Conversation with novelist Kurt Kamm

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2011-11-14
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Malibu resident Kurt Kamm has used his access to Los Angeles County and Los Angeles City firefighters and his experience in several devastating local wildfires to write his novels. He has also attended classes at El Camino Fire Academy and training sessions in arson investigation and hazardous materials response.

One of the Malibu fires, the 60 mile-per-hour Santa Ana wind-driven Canyon Fire, burned to his front door and destroyed the homes of several neighbors.  Kamm said the lessons he learned from L.A. County Fire Department while writing his books helped him save his home.

Kamm’s first novel was a wildland firefighter’s story called One Foot in the Black, a story about a helitack firefighter struggling to overcome traumatic stress.  The book was quickly followed by Red Flag Warning, a mystery novel about a serial arsonist setting the parched Los Angeles hills aflame while LA County arson investigators struggle to find the fire-setter and stop the devastation.   Kamm’s latest novel is Code Blood, an engrossing mystery about of a fire paramedic searching for a woman's foot, stolen after it was severed in an automobile accident.  

9-1-1 Magazine recently spoke to Kurt Kamm about how his experiences have flavored his books and how writing from a public safety viewpoint has given them a unique edge.

Q: What led you into writing novels and, specifically, writing them with a fire service/public safety orientation?

Kurt Kamm: In 2007, I retired and moved to Malibu. The first year I was there, a wind-driven fire burned literally to my front door. It destroyed my closest neighbor's home and a church on our corner. The next month, an arson fire less than a mile away destroyed 50 homes and caused $500 million in damage. I watched the Los Angeles County Fire Department in action and saw one of their helitack crews delivered in Firehawk (Blackhawk) helicopter. I tried to imagine what my life would be like if I was one of the men on that helicopter. I had absolutely no idea and I decided I wanted to know more about how the fire department operated. I thought it would be great to write a book about the life of a wildland firefighter. That resulted in my first book, One Foot In The Black. After that, I just kept on writing.

Q: How has your experience facing several major wildfires in Malibu colored your perspective when conceiving and developing these books?

Kurt Kamm: The ordinary person has no idea what firefighters do and how much training they have. Watching the battle against the Malibu fires and hanging out at the Incident Command Center I realized the amount of organization necessary to send 1,000 or more men out to fight a fire. Equipment, aircraft, communications, logistics, it is very much like managing a small army.  Then I began to realize all the specialties within firefighting. Again, most people have no idea. I decided, if I could, I would write several novels, each dealing with a specialty. Each of my mysteries involves a firefighter with a specific skill: One Foot in the Black: wildland firefighting; Red Flag Warning: arson investigation; Code Blood: fire paramedic. I'm now working on one involving HazMat.

Q: What kind of background or research did you undertake to paint such a realistic portrait of wildland firefighters and paramedics in these books?

Kurt Kamm: I have been incredibly fortunate that the Los Angeles County Fire Department has given me access.  I have gone into the field with their arson investigators, spent time with their hazardous materials response teams, ridden with their paramedics, and have gone through their wildland fire training academy. I have also attended several manipulative training classes at El Camino Fire Academy.

When I set out to write Code Blood, I began riding with the paramedics from Station 88 in Malibu. I always ask to hear unusual stories about firefighter's experiences, and one paramedic told me about a freak accident on Pacific Coast Highway in front of a well-known seafood restaurant. A speeding pickup truck hit a metal light pole. The impact knocked down the pole and, as it fell, the jagged metal edge severed the foot of a woman standing nearby. When the paramedics arrived, they couldn't find her foot for several minutes. Ultimately, it was discovered wedged underneath the engine of the pickup! I thought that was a great way to begin a novel, and tried to imagine what would happen if someone came out of the restaurant, picked up the foot, and took it home. That's the Code Blood story.

Q: Who do you feel is your primary audience?  Who are you writing these books for?

Kurt Kamm: I've got two audiences. I have a loyal group of first responders who read my books and seem to really enjoy them. There aren't many firefighter novels, and there is no series of firefighter mysteries.

My second audience is the general public – people who like to read mysteries and get interested in firefighting and all that goes on behind the scenes. I get a lot of letters saying how fascinating it is to learn about what firefighters and other first responders actually do.

Q: What do you feel are your strongest attributes as a novelist?

Kurt Kamm: I think I'm good at describing emergency situations and scenes with accurate detail. I've heard that from a lot of first responder readers. Also, I have created some very weird characters. Markus, in Code Blood, is as weird as they come.

Q: What can the public safety service learn from these books?  Beyond entertainment, is there a message of comment you have tried to convey in these novels?

Kurt Kamm: My message is that first responders make a lot of sacrifices, spend a lot of time training, and regularly do things that puts them in danger, all to benefit others. The public rarely thinks about that. They see the "wet stuff put on the hot stuff" and have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. I figure I'm spreading that message, along with some entertainment. First responders have to make sure the public knows what they do and how important they are, especially in this time of budget cuts, which I think are going to go on for quite a while.


Click here to read our review of Code Blood.

For more information on Kurt Kamm, see his web site


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