The Mission of the Fire Service Warrior

By Christopher Brennan
           
What is your fire department’s mission statement? Seriously, right now, recite from memory your department’s mission statement. Can you? I ask students in my classes to do just this on a regular basis and, without exception so far, my request has been met with blank or panicked stares. This may sound obvious, but if your members cannot recite your department’s mission statement from memory, then there is no way they will be living that mission statement.
 
Far too often, departments establish “mission statements” that are essentially press releases that fill an entire page in a policy manual. These so-called mission statements can confuse both the public and department members about the exact expectations they should have.
 
There are great examples of mission statements that capture the mission and values of the organization and are easy for members and the neighbors we protect to understand. Let’s take the mission statement of the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department, “Prevent Harm, Survive, Be Nice!” to start.1 The Phoenix Fire Department has published an explicit and direct mission statement. Every member should be able to remember and live this mission. It is clear and easily understood by the neighbors who count on us to step into their lives and provide relief during times of incredible stress.
 
Another good mission statement is that of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY):
 
As first responders to fires, public safety and medical emergencies, disasters and terrorist acts, FDNY protects the lives and property of New York City residents and visitors. The Department advances public safety through its fire prevention, investigation, and education programs. The timely delivery of these services enables the FDNY to make significant contributions to the safety of New York City and homeland security efforts.”2
It is probably too long for most of our members to remember readily, but it does spell out the mission explicitly in the middle: “FDNY protects the lives and property of New York City residents and visitors.”
 
Why do mission statements matter? A mission statement may be the only clear and direct way to communicate to our members and the community we have sworn to protect exactly what we are there to do.
 
The Mission of the Fire Service

Regardless of the exact services you provide. the mission of the fire service is to “save lives and protect property.” This is true no matter what services your department offers. Do you respond to fires? Do you respond to emergency medical incidents? Do you provide auto extrication? Do you participate in fire prevention and education? Do you respond to hazardous materials or technical rescue incidents? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you are responsible for “saving lives and protecting property.”

I like simple mission statements. Many agencies have new members begin their service by swearing an “oath of office,” a statement of expectations and obligations. Oaths of office come in many forms and are often tailored to the particulars of the department or governmental body you serve. A sample of a fire service oath of office follows: 

I (state your name) do hereby declare,
that I will support the Constitution of the United States,
the Constitution of the State of _______, and that,
I will faithfully discharge my duties, to the best of my ability, as firefighter to the __________ Fire Department and
the citizens of __________. I will promote and protect the best interest of the __________ Fire Department in accordance with the __________ Fire Department policies.
 
Interestingly, there is no statement of mission in that generic oath of office. It is worth considering that the average person does not understand the inner workings of your fire department. Few people understand what it takes to fight a fire, which is the reason we constantly have to explain why we cut holes in people’s roofs and smash out their windows. Unless you have a concise, direct mission statement, the general population will choose to think that you are there to do anything and everything they need. That tendency has come to be known a “mission creep.” 

Mission Creep

Mission creep is the tendency of an organization to expand a mission beyond the original goal, generally because of success. It is a common occurrence in military operations and in corporate America. Let’s consider the United States military operations in Somalia in 1992 and 1993. The original mission was to stop feuding warlords from using food as a weapon to control rival factions and to end the rampant starvation that was killing thousands. After the initial success, however, the United States took up the mission of trying to oust one warlord in particular, Mohammed Farid Adid. That mission ultimately resulted in the ill-fated assault on October 3, 1993, which was immortalized in the book and movie Blackhawk Down. What had been a successful humanitarian effort was followed by a successful effort by U.S. Special Operations Forces to reduce the ability of the warlords to use food as a weapon, but the mission ultimately was labeled a failure because our troops failed to capture Adid. Mission creep far too often can turn a victory into a defeat.

Mission creep has been happening to the fire service since Augustus took the vigiles, Rome’s first firefighters, and made them take on responsibility of policing.

In patrolling the streets of Rome at night (vigiles means night watch), they were to detect and extinguish fires and warn citizens to be careful in their use of fire. While making regular preventative patrols, the vigiles witnessed the commission of crimes. Soon they took on the work of policemen ranging from the apprehension of persons stealing togas from bath cloakrooms to catching and returning runaway slaves.3

When Benjamin Franklin founded the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia, America’s first volunteer fire company, he likely did not imagine that someday we would be responsible for mitigating spills of toxic chemicals, rescuing people from confined spaces, or even providing emergency medical care. The mission of the fire service for many years was to put out fires. However, as society has changed, we have taken on more roles. This has been good for both the fire service and the neighbors we serve in many ways. Our brothers and sisters who step aboard an engine, a truck, a squad, a rescue, or an ambulance today are able to provide a level of service our grandfather’s generation would not have dreamed of. The downside to this mission creep is that it comes at a time when we are responding to fewer and fewer structure fires because of our successes in fire prevention and inspection and the greater acceptance of sprinklers, smoke detectors, and public education. As a result, politicians, the citizens of our communities, and even our members view the supplemental missions we have assumed as being more important than preparing to fight fires.

The Fire Service Warrior

The fireground is a dangerous place. Firefighting is combat. A firefighter places himself in a position where he must risk his life to protect his community. That calling, that selfless willingness to place one’s neighbors ahead of oneself, is rooted in the same noble drive as our warriors who defend our nation on foreign shores. From 2006 through 2009, there were 436 firefighter line-of-duty deaths, and from 2006 to 2008 (the last year annual firefighter injury data were published as of this writing), there were 161,095 fireground injuries. For the purposes of comparison, from October 2001 to August 2008, there were 2,409 fatalities in Operations Iraqi Freedom (the Iraq War) and Enduring Freedom (the War in Afghanistan) and 30,568 injuries. In approximately nine years of active combat operations, the U.S. military reported fewer personnel wounded-in-action (WIA) than the U.S. fire service did in any single year during the same period!  

Today’s firefighter must be fire service warriors who will unflinchingly put their lives in harm’s way to accomplish a mission, but who is also steeped in knowledge so that he willfully chooses the path he is on. Firefighting is combat. Anyone who embarks on this path must understand this fact, just as those who enter the military must know they may be called to risk their lives to protect their nation. The fire service warriors must be prepared to die, to suffer grievous injuries, to experience the worst life has to offer. Our fellow fire service warriors must strive to train to do everything possible to survive, but at the end of the day they must look at themselves and know that they will place their lives on the line to do what they have been called to do. A firefighter who is unwilling to risk his life is of no more use to society than a police officer who is unwilling to use his weapon to protect the citizens of the community he is sworn to protect.  
 
We must give our fire service warriors the tools and training to thrive on the fireground! Yes, our other missions are critical, and we must prepare for them, but if we are going to see a true reduction in firefighter fatalities and injuries, then we must ensure that our firefighters are prepared for the harsh, dynamic environment of the modern fireground. We must train our firefighters to be physically and mentally prepared to go into battle and to come home again. We cannot simply parrot catch phrases like “Everyone Goes Home.” We must make a commitment to our members and the communities we protect that we will at least do our best.
 
The fire service warrior is prepared to fulfill our mission of saving lives and protecting property. He has embraced the virtues of honor, courage, and duty. He is living the values of respect, integrity, loyalty, justice, selflessness, self-confidence, and self-control. It is the responsibility of the managers and leaders of the fire service to foster a culture where these virtues can thrive and to prepare our people for the challenges of the fireground so that those selfless men and women who don their turnout gear to protect their neighbors have the best chance of returning home to their families at the end of their tour.
 
If we truly embrace the idea that our mission is to “save lives and protect property” and that the most demanding and important way to do that is by providing fire suppression, then all the other tasks--fire prevention, emergency medical service, hazardous materials, and technical rescue response--will be easier to accomplish. Only by owning up to the sacred responsibility that we have assumed and willingly viewing ourselves as fire service warriors can we hope to send more of our brothers and sisters home. By owning the title of fire service warrior we will persevere when the inevitable happens and one of our tribe falls in the line of duty. If you are unwilling or unable to own that responsibility, then the gratitude and respect the public bestows on you when you tell them you are a firefighter is stolen: You are stealing it from those selfless men and women who earned with their lives the reputation we now hold. You know who you are.
 
REFERENCES

1. http://phoenix.gov/fire/ accessed 31 July 2010.

2. http://nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/general/mission.shtml accessed 31 July 2010.

3. W. Clinton Terry III and Kaelisa V Hartigan, “Police Authority and Reform in Augustan Rome and Nineteenth-Century England,” Law and Human Behavior, 1982; 6:3/4, 300.


Christopher Brennan is a 12-year veteran of the fire service. He is a firefighter with the Harvey (IL) Fire Department and an instructor with the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

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