BY PAUL DOVE
After reading “Fire Marshal: Lighting the Fire” by Jay Lowry in the January 2001 edition of Fire Engineering, I was happy to know that others had viewpoints similar to mine and felt the need to expand the viewpoint presented in this article relative to the importance of firefighters’ and inspectors’ education and overall departmental involvement.
The fire service is made up of many functions that come together as one. Coming together as one is sometimes the difficult part. The need to have two of these functions, fire prevention and fire suppression, come together to understand their roles is important to the department’s overall operation and could create a more informed fire service. As a fire inspector, I have had the privilege of understanding and fighting fires with my fellow brothers and sisters on the line. As a fire marshal, I have had the privilege of understanding and fighting the stereotypes associated with the fire prevention bureau and the notion that it is the “bad side” of the fire service. I have been successful in changing most of those opinions when I encountered them.
Changing opinions on fire prevention in the fire service is difficult because of the various traditional values developed, inherited, and used over the years in the fire station. Negative opinions relating to fire prevention bureaus and assignments are formed through years of progression within the ranks and can be changed only by setting examples and being willing to listen to others’ opinions.
If the opinions shared differ from yours, take the opportunity to demonstrate or explain your side. When both sides communicate their opinions, individuals on each side not only may learn something they didn’t know before but can also come to see how they are perceived by the other side. Fire service personnel usually understand the necessity for the fire prevention bureau, but they do not necessarily understand how successful bureaus make overwhelming strides to make sure that civilians and firefighters are protected.
The effort to change opinions about the fire prevention bureau should begin at home in the fire station. This can be done with the planning of community education and assistance programs and be carried on through the review of building plans and the inspections of new and existing buildings. Sharing a philosophy that recognizes that these functions are as important for suppression personnel as they are for fire prevention bureau personnel can create a strong working relationship between the two and make it easier for the individual and the entire department when a department member makes the transition into the bureau.
Suppression and prevention personnel and representatives from the community should work together to develop community education and assistance programs. Including ideas from the entire department and the community will help to ensure the program’s success.
Suppression personnel involved in developing the program in its early stages may be more open to assist in presenting the programs to the community. When suppression and prevention personnel share in delivering the programs, the public perceives the department as a cohesive unit.
Departmental cooperation will ensure that the opinions and viewpoints of suppression personnel are included in plan reviews; suppression and prevention personnel could review the plans during the site review and the building review stages. Sometimes, plan reviewers may not be experienced enough to understand how fire behavior affects building construction and how it is directly related to successful evacuation and suppression. Suppression firefighters can assist the reviewer in meeting two basic but very important objectives: safe and timely evacuation of the building’s occupants and containing the fire to the area of origin. This second objective also relates to the firefighters’ ability to access the building and contain fire spread by using available resources to make the fire more manageable. Being involved in plan review may help firefighters understand how the bureau’s mission helps to protect personnel.
INSPECTIONS AS INFORMATION SOURCE
Inspections can be a source of vital information when developing preincident surveys of buildings; this information can be used in future training sessions. Prevention and suppression personnel should conduct surveys on both new and existing structures. Structural concepts and components look different on paper and in photographs. Components may change daily, and fire personnel most times are not aware that changes were made. Entering and maneuvering through a structure in a nonemergency setting (as during an inspection) give firefighters a knowledge of the layout that they cannot acquire by viewing videos, photographs, or drawings.
Using an inspection to identify safety hazards and visualize interior and exterior layouts may also help to develop positive community relations. Sharing (verbally or in writing) with building owners or tenants information on potential hazards that could affect their safety can be done in a positive and nonconfrontational manner. This positive experience may help when the fire department is trying to gain community support for a new fire station, personnel, equipment, or training facilities.
Education and setting an example can help offset the negative stereotype of the fire prevention bureau as an agency that closes down buildings. Today’s fire inspectors need to understand their roles and responsibilities within the bureau and the department. They and all fire department personnel, from the chief to the newest rookie, should understand the interactive roles of each member.
Fire service personnel need to be in-formed and educated through involvement about the continual changes and developments that affect their work environment; changes in building construction materials, design concepts, fire protection and detection equipment, and codes and standards are just a few examples. Being informed by getting involved is a great way to keep skills sharp. Active involvement expands knowledge and may be helpful when pursuing promotions. The informed firefighter and inspector are more valuable to the department. The confidence gained by being informed helps in developing a firefighter or inspector who will be able to resolve in a professional way the situations with which he is confronted.
Keeping the fire lit in the bellies of fire service personnel is difficult. The fire dims from time to time and sometimes burns out. Developing an understanding of the other side of the issue and a willingness to listen to each side of the station can help to maintain the overall success of the department and the bureau.
PAUL DOVE, a member of the fire service since 1986, has been fire marshal serving in the Coldwater (MI) Fire Department in Branch County since 1997. Previously, he was firefighter/inspector in the Lake Park (FL) Fire Department. Elected to the Michigan Fire Inspectors Society’s executive board in 1998, he chairs its Code Review and Development Committee. He is a member of the National Fire Protection Association’s Northcentral Regional Code Development Committee. Dove is a certified firefighter and an officer and inspector in Florida, a Michigan-certified firefighter and inspector, and an NFPA nationally certified fire inspector and plans examiner.