LET`S GET BACK TO THE BASICS OF FIREFIGHTING
BY JAKE RIXNER
Thousands of citizens and approximately 100 firefighters die each year in fires (the same statistics as a decade ago), but yet working fires have decreased about 30 percent. How is that possible? One reason may be that firefighters are now expected to be jacks-of-all-trades. Look at what fire departments have taken on in recent years: EMS, haz mat, and the list goes on.
The depth of the problem became apparent recently when my station received a new piece of apparatus and a rookie firefighter within a span of three months. My department was known as a traditional fire department until very recently. When I went to work there16 years ago, we still operated in the same fashion as they did in the horse-drawn days; the only difference was that we used diesel fuel instead of oats. But in the past few years, the fire department has taken on so many different functions that firefighters` lives are now in greater jeopardy than ever before.
THE COMPANY DRILL
For three straight days after the arrival of our new apparatus, we set out to practice with it. As soon as the aerial ladder was set up and the drill began, a call came in for an EMS run. After advising the dispatcher that we would be delayed, a rapid attempt was made to put the ladder in its bed and retract the outriggers. Each of these training-interrupting runs turned out to be nonlife threatening. It doesn`t take a brain surgeon to figure out that with enough of these interruptions, eventually most people will give up on the drill. The volume of calls has reached a critical mass in many cities across the country, limiting the amount of actual training time.
The number of fires is going down, and so is training time. This is a recipe for disaster. There simply isn`t enough time to train because of all the runs. Other daily activities, such as building preplans and inspections, also begin to suffer. A hazard identified by an inspection may save firefighters` and civilians` lives. Morale begins to suffer when a company is doing 10-plus runs per shift; and when all is said and done, the firefighters aren`t doing much more than burning diesel fuel and making noise.
EMPHASIS ON RUNS
Too much emphasis is being placed on the number of runs a company does in a year. A recent study identified that some fire companies were running more calls than others. The consultants felt that all the companies should be doing approximately 2,000 runs per year. Every city in North America has rich neighborhoods and poor ones. Guess which area fire stations are busiest? It is not that poor people like to see their belongings burn up, but usually money is tight and the choice often comes down to feeding the kids or fixing the furnace. Look back in your department`s records and see what the average number of runs were 10, 15, or 20 years ago. Fire trucks are being worn out at a record rate, but are firefighters actually accomplishing anything? If the taxpayers in some towns knew the real story, heads would surely roll.
Budget cuts demand that we do more with less, but as call volumes go up, more neighborhoods go without adequate fire protection while firefighters respond to “serious issues” such as back pains and people lying on the sidewalk.
SECOND WORST RATE IN THE
The United States has the second highest death rate from fire in the industrial world, surpassed only by Hungary. Think about this U if your doctor were the next to the worst in his specialty, would you recommend he diversify into other areas of medicine? That`s exactly what city managers throughout this land are doing.
Sure, smoke detectors have helped somewhat, but the truth is, there is still a serious problem. Is this problem not important enough because it is usually the poor people who are suffering the most? How can we justify losing the lives of the youngsters and the elderly who primarily live in these fire traps but who can`t move fast enough to get away from fires or who are too young to identify and understand the dangers? I have helped place too many of their bodies in body bags to believe that the fire service needs EMS to justify its existence.
The fire service doesn`t have to apologize to any bureaucrat, but we firefighters had better start marketing ourselves better. Most Americans don`t know that a fire problem exists in this country. I remember working in an impoverished neighborhood many years ago. We went to many fires, and the elderly ladies always gave us compliments and praise. The problem was that they didn`t have any political power. Many nights we worked until the sun came up over the neighborhood the following morning and never saw any media coverage of the event. Fires in poor neighborhoods are seldom newsworthy unless someone dies.
MASTER OF NONE
Remember that very few people can master more than one trade without losing some proficiency in skills in other areas. The fire service should hold its collective head high as one of the last government agencies that provides excellent service without regard to race, creed, sexual orientation, income, nationality, or religion. The bean counters will counter this argument with “all citizens receive the same level of service.” But put on sloppy clothes and apply for a zoning variance and see what happens. Go to a national park without the entrance fee and see what happens.
The fire service is the most noble of all professions. The best firefighters in this country can be found in the worst neighborhoods. They will solve your problem without worrying about how much money you make, who your insurance company is, what color your skin is, or even how you maintain your house. Our profession is noble because of the people who work here. Firefighters should not have to run hither and yon to justify their position. We must stay focused on our primary mission–the safe removal of all persons in danger and the extinguishment of all fires. All other things must come second. A country with the highest gross domestic product should not have the second worst fire problem in the world.
Firefighter safety is being seriously compromised because too much emphasis is being placed on how many runs a company does per year. When we reach a critical mass, training will suffer. With fewer fires today, more, not less, fire training should be taking place to ensure firefighter safety. People living in poverty should not go without protection several times a day as firefighters rush to a street corner for a drunk lying on the sidewalk. This is not an effective use of taxpayers` dollars or of the people who make up the noblest profession in the world. n
n JAKE RIXNER, a 20-year veteran of the fire service, has been a member of the Richmond (VA) Fire Department for the past 16 years, where he is a company officer serving at Quint Co. 6. He has a degree in fire science and is an adjunct instructor for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs. He is also a former member of the Washington, DC, Fire Department and has served as a volunteer firefighter in Prince George`s County, Maryland, and Monroeville, Pennsylvania.