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
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 andthe citizens of __________. I will promote and protect the best interest of the __________ Fire Department in accordance with the __________ Fire Department policies.
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!
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.