The Fire Service: 250 Years of Driving Progress

BOBBY HALTON   BY BOBBY HALTON

Tens of dozens of books HAVE been written about the power of words—how important it is that the words we use paint the right images and pictures in our minds. The underlying reason cited for creating these accurate visuals is that we will move toward those pictures and will become what we think—or at least, that’s what dozens of authors have proposed.

One of the best exercises that shows the power of words is rather simple:

Read the next sentence several times:

What I’d like you to do is to not think of a black horse in a green meadow next to a white picket fence; whatever you do, do not think of a black horse in a green meadow next to a white picket fence.

Unfortunately, it would be impossible because we think in pictures. All of us, depending on our age, have seen either Flicka or Seabiscuit running through a meadow with the grass blowing and that darn white picket fence running across a gorgeous meadow.

What does the fact that we think in pictures mean for us in the fire service? Think back for a moment. Try to recall how many times you have heard this incredibly ill-informed statement: “The fire service is recognized as having 250 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” Unfortunately, many fire service “leaders” have repeated this incredibly inaccurate and incredibly damaging remark. The reality is that there are probably few, if any, professions that have been as adaptable, as malleable, and as responsive to the changes in technology and society as the American fire service.

We could look at dozens of examples, including the incident command system, which we adapted from the military and pioneered in public safety in the 1970s and is now widespread across a vast array of public safety agencies, industries, and professions.

We could look at apparatus that have evolved and morphed to match specific new requirements brought about by a changing demographic. What other industry has been as aggressive in developing and innovating apparatus that match suburban needs, wildland interface needs, and urban needs?

We could look at our tactics, which have been adjusted to incorporate the technological changes to not only the construction methodology over the past 200 years but also to the fuel load within those structures, whether it be the fuel loading in a modern high-density storage facility or the polymer-based fuel loading in a residential home built with lightweight assemblies that replaced the mass of yesterday with the geometry of today. The fire service has kept pace with these changing fuel loads, construction types, and the challenges they pose to our civilian population and our firefighters.

Right now, we’re seeing another incredible example of how an often repeated, unfounded statement is absolutely inaccurate and not only paints the wrong picture of the fire service but also portrays one that can be used against us. Look at what is happening now within the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), another incredibly important institution that routinely gets abused by those who do not understand its value, integrity, or purpose. Often we hear that the NFPA is controlled by the manufacturers or that the NFPA stands for “Not For Practical Application.” Neither of those statements is even remotely true. The NFPA has tremendous value; it is always striving to get firefighter input and places firefighter safety and survivability at the top of every standard it creates.

NFPA standards are that “shining city on a hill,” first mentioned in 1611 by John Winthrop, who referenced the Bible (Matthew 5:14): “For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword throughout the world.”

Some standards are like that utopian vision; they are a shining city on a hill that we, especially as American firefighters, must continue to strive to create, especially within our own industry. Other standards are immediate, critical, and a matter of life or death.

As examples, let’s consider the 2013 revised versions of NFPA 1981, Standard on Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) for Emergency Services, and NFPA 1852, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Open-Circuit Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). They outline new tests and several changes to the subsystems of our current SCBA. Two tests are specific to the lens on the SCBA. The new lenses will have to be tested to withstand 500°F of preconditioning instead of the previous 203°F. This higher temperature matches the context of our workplace, the fire environment, and was adopted directly to improve firefighter safety and survivability on the fireground.

Another change involves the activation of our personal alert safety system alarm. It will alert when 33 percent of air is available (per a new NFPA standard) instead of when available air is down to 25 percent, as outlined by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This makes much more sense and, again, was driven by firefighters to improve firefighter safety and survivability. We are adapting the technology to the way we work and where we work. Here is a simple equation: “Your work time plus your escape time equals your survivability.”

NFPA 1981 will also include a section on emergency buddy breathing systems, in direct response to demands from firefighters. NIOSH has dropped its objections to buddy breathing. We can now without fear of repercussions or violating warranties train to and implement buddy breathing as a technique for firefighter rescue.

Words do matter. We belong to a profession whose tradition is change; whose tradition is innovation; and whose tradition has in large part helped drive, and has been driven by, the progress of this great nation.

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