Letters to the Editor

Community fire protection also part of the equation

I think Editor in Chief Bobby Halton missed another part of the discussion in “Be Careful What You Wish For” (Editor’s Opinion, December 2007): the need to explore the social contract to the depth that is necessary to address the true fire problem in America. The American fire service has emphasized the suppression model for service delivery while somewhat neglecting the need for community fire protection.

As a matter of fact, the design of the Insurance Services Office (ISO) Public Protection Classification system is one of the direct reasons for the stress on suppression that is endemic in the fire service today. For municipalities to get the “lowest” ISO rating, they must have the biggest and best vehicles, the best equipment (and a lot of it), the highest staffing levels, the best water supply system, and the best alarm/dispatch center. All of this conspires to add additional costs to taxpayers, exacerbates the need for suppression, and lessens the debate on effective community fire protection.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that house fires accounted for 2,580 civilian deaths in 2006. There were 3,245 total civilian fire deaths and 16,400 injuries and $11 billion in direct property loss, with close to a $7 billion loss in residential fires. These are spectacular numbers for a modern society to be relatively comfortable with. If these numbers are as appalling as I see them, why is there relatively little argument from fire service leaders? This is unacceptable on all levels.

Do our personnel need better training? Absolutely. Do we need to meet NFPA standards for staffing and safety? Yes, again. What I am advocating is something that will dramatically reduce deaths caused by fire for civilians and firefighters. What I am advocating will lower commercial and residential property loss. What it will take is a true paradigm shift for the American fire service. It will require leadership at all levels. This is not a new concept, just a renewed emphasis.

What I am advocating is addressing the fire problem where it begins—literally at the incipient level. We can have the biggest and best engines and trucks and the most courageous firefighters, but the question I offer is, “Why?” Why should we be satisfied with spending enormous amounts of taxpayer funds and sacrificing firefighters’ health and safety while the fire statistics seemingly remain status quo? We are not winning the war. In a eulogy I presented for a fallen firefighter many years ago, I called him “a soldier in the war that never ends.” We laughingly refer to “300 years of tradition unimpeded by progress.” I challenge the American fire service leadership to actively engage in the debate to establish a more active stance on community fire protection.

In my 25 years of service to the community, I have found several truisms. Firefighters will take extraordinary risks for relatively little gain. All fires will eventually go out. Unchecked fires will cause maximum damage. House fires that appear routine never are. Building fires are dangerous, period. Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department Chief (Ret.) Alan Brunacini’s mission statement “Prevent Harm, Survive, Be Nice” is applicable as never before.

We have the tools in our grasp already. We need to advocate the installation of built-in protection/suppression, not just smoke detectors, for every type of occupancy. We need to aggressively enforce building and fire codes. We need to beef up staffing in the fire prevention/life safety divisions of our fire departments. We need to aggressively educate the public from preschool through high school. We need to institutionalize fire safety from the youngest of ages. We need to continue to train and educate our firefighters in modern strategy and tactics, hazard recognition, and code enforcement. All of these programs will result in fewer fire deaths and less property loss, and we will be smarter and safer firefighters. Maybe we had a good idea when the larger cities had fire insurance patrols that responded with fire companies in the old days. Perhaps the next evolution in fire services will be rapid-suppression and loss-mitigation squads. Bravery and courageousness are noble, but we need to make them obsolete in the future fire service.

Mark J. Finocchio
Captain
Lenexa (KS) Fire Department

Preparing for cellular phone failures

I would like to comment on a common myth related to communications that seems to surface from time to time. It is the fallacy that cell phones can and will work during and immediately after a major disaster or other event.

Hurricane Katrina taught not just America but the world that cell phones do not and cannot be guaranteed to be operational during the event, let alone provide a link to landlines. Cell phones, which aren’t really phones but radios, require an operational landline to each cell phone site. Without that landline, the cell phone does not function. The single exception to that is the Nextel Direct Connect Network. However, that RF link will work only with other Nextel Direct Connect users—and the range is limited. Amateur radio doesn’t have that limitation. We can and have linked VHF/UHF with HF radios for virtually unlimited range for both voice and data.

What did work well was the Amateur Radio/Military Affiliate Radio System (MARS). I know this from firsthand experience, because I worked many stations during Katrina for roughly 72 hours (total time on air, not continuous service) through U.S. Army MARS. I was able to relay emergency and urgent message traffic from the Gulf Coast, because I was able to maintain direct communications between stations, whereas a cellular phone system requires switches, relays, etc., to function.

A couple of weeks ago, Cox Communications network went down hard here in Chesapeake, Virginia. Those with Cox as their cable and data provider, including fiber optics, lost all communications with the “outside” world. We have a few “Hams” on the local fire departments in the area. I know of one Sheriff’s Department in the Florida Panhandle where the sheriff and each deputy have amateur radio licenses or “tickets,” as Hams call it. I am able to talk around the world from my Land Rover using just 100 watts or less. From my home, I’m able to work the world with even less power, owing to a better antennae system. We are able, but only during times of emergency, to transmit on any frequency for the immediate safety of life and protection of property. That includes the VHF and UHF public safety frequencies; public safety agencies are not allowed to do the same. We are all very careful about that ability, because we do not want to push the wrong buttons by making a poor decision [Federal Communications Commission (FC) Section 97.403].

Every fire chief and emergency manager must be reminded that cellular phones cannot be counted on 100 percent of the time and the only communications system that has never failed to get the message through is amateur radio.

I am a General Class Ham, which allows me to have wide-ranging high frequency radio privileges as well as VHF, UHF, and satellite communications. With those privileges comes the responsibility that the FCC entrusts to all amateur radio operators. We, as a group, are expected to provide emergency communications when and where needed. We were there for the United States after Hurricanes Katrina, Hugo, Andrew, Hazel, George, Mitch, Wilma, Floyd, Isabelle, Camille, etc. Ham radio operators were there to help after the Alaskan (1964), San Fernando (1971), Mexico City (1985), Armenian (1988), Loma Prieta (1989), Northwest Iran (1990), Bolivian (1994), Northridge (1994), and Kobe (1995) earthquakes and other natural and manmade disasters.

Jeffrey S Austin
Firefighter/EMT-FR
Chesapeake, Virginia

Editor’s note: In the January 2008 issue, in “Hybrid School Buses, Response Considerations” (pages 107-110), the following should be added on page 110, column 1, after the paragraph numbered 3:

Note: The Enova Hybrid School Bus Emergency Response Guide describes the above procedures but also states: “Under no circumstances should this switch be treated as an emergency cutoff switch.”

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