Undershorts and Sprinklers

BY BOBBY HALTON

The most powerful piece of advice I ever received regarding what we need to do for people came in the context of overhaul. It came long before I was taught about customer service and Mrs. Smith. The wisdom imparted to me was that the most important thing you could do for people was to “save their undershorts and socks.” Now today that might seem like pretty strange advice, but it was important to that retired old sage that I “got” it; recovering someone’s underwear was his way of saying that we must always remember who we work for. Dan Lyman said remember to try to feel how the family we are working for at that moment is seeing things and feeling.

The philosopher who gave me this advice had fought in World War II; he had been a prisoner of war, and he understood what mattered to people. He understood that good firefighters try to understand what other people are feeling. He explained how you can always wear the same pants for a week or two—even a shirt may last you a few days—but clean underwear was important to your self-esteem. Dan had a hard life, but he was always ready to help anyone who asked, anyone he could. Dan understood what was important in life, in training, and in service. Dan was right with everyone he knew and was always offering to help out with advice, support, tools, and most of all his time.

I was reminded of Dan’s advice when I read the U.S. Fire Administration’s (USFA) report “Fire in the United States 1995 to 2004.” I thought, what could we do to help make things better? Why are so many good Americans dying in residential structure fires? Why in a nation with the most righteously focused, superiorly trained, and best equipped firefighters in the world couldn’t we do better to reduce the number of roughly three and a half thousand Americans who die in home fires each year?

As you read the report, you can’t help but get energized about trying to change this current American reality. We know we need to increase awareness of the dangers of today’s polymer-based fires to every possible demographic, with particular focus on the very young and people over the age of 60. We understand that survival is now measured in seconds to escape, not minutes, and we know that smoke detectors, despite some of their shortfalls, are effective. However, we absolutely understand that sprinklers save lives and reduce property damage.

The report highlights that civilian fire deaths are far higher in the southeastern United States, particularly among African American and Native American populations. There is also no excuse for any one community in America to have disproportionate numbers. Now is the time for every firefighter-related organization to help in developing a target plan under the direction of the USFA to meet this challenge today, not in the next fiscal year.

We have abundant resources in these communities to make positive and lasting advances. Ten states and the District of Columbia account for half the fire deaths in America annually. What would make the biggest difference instantly? Sprinklers, smoke detectors, community life safety messages through fire education programs and connected role models of firefighters—you and me. What will make the biggest difference is our boots on the ground and our hands-on approach. I believe that everything else is just chin dribble.

Each of these states and DC has the leadership, the vision, and the willpower to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. The only thing missing is us, because we firefighters are at our best when we work for and with others. Participating firefighters will turn this around. There is no force like inspired firefighters and knowing where we are needed most and knowing who needs us. People in need of protection are an irresistible attraction for us. Just like protecting our friends in the schoolyard from bullies—it’s what we do.

Regarding the neighborhoods that could use sprinkler systems, what if we got Congress along with the 10 states’ governors to back a program of Sprinklered Habitats for Humanity? Would you step up like Dan and give a little of your time? What if the firefighters in the 10 states and DC supplied the labor? Could we help retrofit sprinklers in high-risk residential occupancies? Could we work with the American and National Fire Sprinkler Associations and the smoke alarm manufacturers to aid subsidized property owners in high-risk communities? Could we do it in single-family homes, with permission? Firefighters can do great things when we act with enthusiasm and intensity.

We see former presidents building houses. Can we ask them to sprinkler every one? We have powerful programs for improving firefighter safety and survival such as Everyone Goes Home, Courage to be Safe, Get Out Alive, Safety and Survival, and Saving Our Own. We need to continue all of these and add a new one, which brings us back to our roots of service to the community—the people.

We exist to serve the public, and now it is time to try something completely different, completely new. It’s about human dignity, service, and making the right choice. By accepting this new challenge, you will empower your communities. You always have a choice. You have the talents, and you have the energy. Please, let’s band together and make a difference.

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