Recently, a fire inspector called another department a few states away to discuss a code enforcement issue that the two seemed to have in common. He asked for the fire prevention bureau. “That section no longer exists,” came the reply. He asked for the code enforcement supervisor. “I’m sorry, no one in this department can help you with that.” “What do you mean?” he asked. “We don’t do code enforcement anymore. No money.”
Sound familiar? What about your department? When the budget ax falls, is prevention the first to go? Is your bureau struggling just to keep the pieces together? Do you have a bureau? Is it a “hospital” for the wounded to recuperate beforebeing sent back to the line?
You’re in a tight spot. Not a day goes by that you’re not followed by the specter of financial cuts. Maybe you’re already down to three-member crews. Where’s it going to come from? You tally up the runs per company, run a risk/benefit analysis. Can’t cut rescue, can’t cut haz mat, can’t cut EMS. You think, We need our inspectors, but not at the expense of burning down the town. You think. People will be very upset if the ambulance doesn’t come to take their relatives to the hospital, but wouldn’t be too shaken if there were no inspectors to cite their businesses for code violations.
Take it a step further. How do you feel personally about prevention and protection activities? What value do you place on them? Is your idea of prevention inextricably linked with the image of a firefighter in a dalmatian costume? What about the other members of the department? It’s not difficult to fathom why most people get more excited about pump capacity than an inspection report. Why Hollywood doesn’t make a movie called “Code Violation” (starring Patrick Swayze as the handsome fire protection engineer). Why S500.000 is sunk into the new command vehicle rather than the bureau. If 1 had the audacity to suggest that in 50 years much of the firefighting will be done with public education programs, inspection books, and pitot gauges, you might tell me where to go.
That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. It’s not an original idea. America Ranting 1/ suggested it several years ago. Without a radical shift to comprehensive prevention and protection programs—our first and second lines of fire defense—our daily fire tragedy will continue to amount to one huge fire disaster. Olin Greene, USFA administrator, puts it this way: “Think about two 747s, fully loaded with passengers, crashing in midair each month. Would we stand tor it?” That the United States, the most affluent and technologically advanced nation, leads the world in fire deaths and fire loss is a total disgrace.
In this less-than-perfect world, we will always have structure fires and we will always have to fight them. But manual fire suppression is a reaction to a problem five, 10, 15. even 45 minutes into the fire event—an eternity of fire growth. It is necessary. God knows, but it is not the best way to fight a fire. Still, from the fire department’s position between a rock and a hard place, what can be done?
First, accept that changes must and will occur. Accept that a new era in structural fire protection is on the horizon. Second, decide whether you, the fire service, will lead the nation across the threshold or be dragged into the next century, still clinging to the old ways. Third, look in the mirror and reevaluate who you are, what you are, what you do, and how you do it. Create a new vision of the modern structural firefighter—a firefighter with roots tied firmly to an active fire prevention/protection bureau.
There is a saying, “Perception is belief.” As long as the present image of the firefighter remains static—despite efforts by some to move it forward—society will not react favorably to move fire protection into the 21st century. You will get the same tired arguments from organized sprinkler opposition. The same public misconceptions. The same excuses from unimaginative and buck-passing governments for making concessions to life safety. As long as you knowingly or unknowingly project the image that fire protection begins and ends with the tip of the nozzle, the statistics will continue to stand as an admission that almost 6,000 fire deaths a year are acceptable and unavoidable.
You must change perceptions. The firefighter is no substitute for an educated, fire-aware public. The firefighter is no substitute tor an effective detection and alarm system. The firefighter is no substitute for well-designed, complete automatic sprinkler protection in every home, business, and place of public assembly. The image of the sooty, sweaty firefighter with irons slung over the shoulder—though we have needed and nurtured that image—is not conducive to 21st-century fire education and protection. Fire protection “specialist” or “technician” has an unexciting ring to it, but after all, is it excitement or a reduction in life and property losses that we’re seeking?
Your renewed self-image will manifest itself to the world: to misguided people who feel (and I’ve heard it said) that the fire service is “the last sacred cow”; to public officials who come through with dollars and encourage change only when something really terrible happens: to engineers who think that mathematical formulas can replace people; to overaggressive organizations that will push to move ahead regardless of whether you’re aboard or not; to a public that by and large is fire safetyundereducated, fire safety-misinformed, not used to living in a fire-safe environment, and unaware of the importance of a firesafe environment to their qualityof living; and even to other fire service members whose image of the service has become tarnished over the years.
Deemphasizing the value of code inspections, systems testing and maintenance, building plan evaluations, and other bureau activities will only keep us back. We must market that value at everyturn, fight for the resources that will take us to the next level. Making the transition to 21st-century prevention and protection without burning down the town in the process is an awesome challenge. Will you accept it?
The change begins with you: Are you destined to be dinosaurs in turnout gear or the new breed of 21st-century firefighters? It’s your call.