Why We Need Firefighters

By Christopher Brennan

You awake in the middle of the night to your smoke alarm. As you roll out of bed, your heart begins to race and panic sets in. There is smoke in the air.

My house is on fire, you realize this as you are waking up. You reach over and shake your wife’s shoulder while yelling out, “The house is on fire! We have to get the kids!” You try to walk but you cannot see. You cannot breathe. You get low to the ground and begin to crawl. You reach out for the door knob, and, opening the door, you allow inky, choking smoke into the room. 

Your wife yells, “Get the kids, get the kids!”

You try to crawl down the hallway. You cannot; the smoke too thick, the heat growing in intensity. You are forced back into the bedroom and shut the door. You make your way to the window. You will have to jump. The only chance you or the kids have is if you can get outside and try to find another way in. You leap from the window, twisting your ankle. Your wife follows. You manage to arrest her fall enough that she is not hurt.

You make your way to the front of the house and now see the flames that have broken the picture window and are pushing out, illuminating the night sky. You can feel the heat as you stand on the curb. The kids! Oh, God, the kids! The thought of your children trapped in the building is all you can think of.

You hear a siren. Turning towards the sound you see a fire engine pulling down the block. You feel a sense of hope. They’re here! They’ll get the Sarah and Claire! God, please keep my kids safe.

The engine pulls just past the building. One firefighter gets out, and then another.

“My daughters are in there!” Your wife’s scream is filled with fear.

One firefighter stretches a hoseline to the front door, and then goes to walk around the building. The second starts the water into the hose. 

Why aren’t they going in to get my girls? It’s not enough to think the thought–you scream it at the firefighter operating the controls of the engine, “My kids are in there!”

The firefighter looks at you, with genuine concern and says, “Sir, it’s just the two of us; we have to wait for help before we can go in.”

Your heart sinks as more windows break from the heat and the fire begins to push out. The lone firefighter with the hose begins to spray water on your neighbor’s house, which has begun to smolder. You have no choice but to confront the horrible reality that you are watching your children die.

Fire department staffing has become a hot-button issue for municipal leaders across the country. Given the struggling economy, many municipal and county fire departments, along with their fire protection district brethren, have chosen to reduce staffing to close a their budget gaps. At face value, this may seem to be a reasonable thing; after all, how big of an impact can eliminating a single person per apparatus have?

Firefighting is a dangerous profession. The American fire service suffers approximately 100 firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) each year. In addition, approximately 80,000 firefighters are injured each year, with roughly 50,000 of those occurring on the fireground, according to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the United States Fire Administration. In contrast, the United States military suffered roughly 30,000 wounded-in-action casualties from October of 2001 until August of 2008 while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Department of Defense statistics.

However, when mayors and city managers close a budget gap by eliminating fire protection resources, there is rarely a frank conversation about how that reduction will hinder the fire department’s ability to achieve its objectivessave life, stabilize the incident, and conserve property.   When these elected officials choose to eliminate firefighters, close stations, shut down apparatus, or in any way increase the workload on firefighters, they are reducing the ability of the fire department to respond effectively and efficiently.

Fire doubles in size roughly every minute. This exponential growth is why small, seemingly manageable fires quickly and aggressively can consume a home. It is why an unattended candle can bring ruin to your home in minutes, or why a child playing with a lighter can cause a fire that displaces dozens of people from an apartment building. With this knowledge, why would you choose to reduce or eliminate fire protection?

The fact is that fire departments are consumers. Fire departments consume tax dollars. Personnel cost money in salaries and benefits; apparatus cost money to buy and maintain; training requires instructors and curriculum; and equipment, tools, and protective clothing must be replaced continually because of wear and damage. A small community can easily spend several million dollars in tax money each year to maintain quality fire protection. The downside is there is rarely a splashy headline that political leaders want to point to when elections come around. Police departments rarely have the same challenges fire departments do because they are able to generate revenue through citations, and the fear of crime motivates people to vote. It is easier for elected or appointed officials, when a community suffers fire deaths and property loss, to say, “These things are unavoidable.” Fire is inhuman, it is impersonal, and as such is easy to dismiss as uncontrollable. 

These dismissals are falsehoods. They are lies. A properly trained and equipped fire department is more likely to be able to rescue trapped occupants and extinguish a fire with minimal loss of property. In October, the Oak Park (IL) Fire Department rescued a teenager from a fire in a supposedly vacant building. Days later, in downstate Decatur, crews rescued a toddler from a house fire the mother was unable to get inside to rescue her child. These rescues are timely examples of the impact that having enough properly trained people available can have. With longer response times or fewer firefighters on the front lines, these two successes could have easily been tragedies.

Recent studies by the National Institute for Standards and Technology have shown that firefighter staffing directly affects how quickly and effectively a fire department can perform the critical fireground functions of locating and confining the fire, search and rescue, ventilation, extinguishment, and salvage and overhaul. Fewer firefighters means less gets accomplished.

We hear the phrase “do more with less” from corporate leaders and government officials all the time. The fact is you cannot “do more with less” unless you have developed a technology or a process that reduces the number of tasks a person must perform. Henry Ford was able to do more with less because he created the assembly line. Because of automation and
technology, the Boeing 777 requires two pilots in the cockpit, rather than three.

Firefighting is a physically demanding task that requires accomplishing specific actions in a demanding, rapidly changing environment. NFPA 1710,  Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments, states that 14 personnel should be on scene “within an eight-minute response time to 90 percent of the incidents” they will be called to. Can the fire department that protects you and your children do that?

It is incumbent on political leaders to have the courage to step up and say, “We feel the risk to your family is worth having only two or three people on a fire engine.”

It is incumbent on the political leaders to say, “We feel that it is a reasonable choice to rely on surrounding departments to provide manpower for first response. Yes, there may be times that a house burns to the ground or people die because we only have three people on the engine, and that other departments are unavailable because of their own responses. But we don’t think that situation is likely to occur often enough to justify spending your money on firefighters.”

It is the moral responsibility of political leaders to gauge the values of their community and provide for it or make honest statements about what will and will not happen if they are forced to reduce services. So I say to all you mayors, council and board members, city managers, and department administrators, “Be honest. If you believe that cutting fire protection is a reasonable way of reducing a budget shortfall, explain it to your citizens. Explain in clear and plain language that you have weighed and measured and found that the risk to the safety of their homes and their lives is less valuable than another project you are choosing to keep.”


Christopher Brennan is a 14-year veteran of the fire service, a certified fire instructor, and the author of numerous articles. He is the author of the textbook, The Ready Position, which will be available from Fire Engineering in Spring 2011. Chris’s Blog can be found at http://www.thefireservicewarrior.blogspot.com

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