America Still Burning

America Still Burning


Not enough has changed since the publication of a landmark report 14 years ago. The USFA invited conferees to help find ways to make more happen.

Fourteen years after a congressionally appointed task force compiled the report America Burning, apathy, ignorance, tradition, lack of funding, and lack of vision have left the U.S. fire problem qualitatively, if not quantitatively, unchanged. To overcome these persistent barriers, the fire service will have to educate and train itself into a leadership role.

This was the consensus when ideas voiced during a three-day session in Virginia last November were boiled down to one statement.

The U.S. Fire Administration had gathered 70 members of the fire service and related industries to create a vision of what the fire service will be on the threshold of the 21st century. The organizers set three goals for the group: Define the status of and trends in America’s fire problem; review, evaluate, and refine the 91 recommendations of the 14-year-old America Burning report; and identify the direction that federal, state, and local governments should take to help reduce life and property loss caused by fire.

Halfway into the first day, the participants would separate into seven groups assigned specific areas of inquiry. But the first morning was devoted to establishing some perspective about what’s happened since the 20 members of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control made recommendations after two years of work on America Burning.

Louis Amabili, director of the Delaware State Fire School, was a member of that commission, and he spoke of the gap between the recommendations and the reality. The essence of the report was that it identified a need for professionalism in the fire service and a need for the government to take an active support role at a price of $125 million a year.

The fire service has accomplished much of the first goal without the government fulfilling much of the second. “The fire service still can accomplish miracles, because that [first] goal was reached with a real budget one sixth of that requested,” Amabili observed. “It’s extremely difficult to spend 11 months of your fiscal year trying to gain congressional support just to stay in business, and the remaining one month to work miracles with the little funding that’s received,” he said.

The nation’s civilian fire death record has been reduced mainly through the efforts outlined in the original report—education and the installation of detection, warning, and automatic suppression systems. But U.S. Fire Administrator Clyde Bragdon noted that the firefighter death and injury rates remain among the highest in the world. They “should not be viewed with pride but with disgrace and the challenge to eliminate these kinds of statistics in the future,” he said.

Bragdon added that important studies have been performed quantifying the number of immediate deaths caused by fire, but much data collection remains to be done to calculate how much longterm injuries from fire cost the country.

“Fire death comes in ones and twos and can be put on other shoulders,” said Democratic Congressman Doug Walgren of Pennsylvania. Walgren is chairman of the House Subcommittee for Scientific Research and Technology, the committee in which originates legislation authorizing funding of the federal fire programs, including the USFA and the National Fire Academy.

Echoing Bragdon’s emphasis on statistical ammunition, Walgren explained that “we really need a directional push in Congress. And if it doesn’t come from the fire service community, it is seriously doubted that Congress itself can lead the way … It seems that the only legislation that’s expected from Congress is tombstone legislation. Action seems to be tied in to dramatic fire death experience.”

And the experience is plenty dramatic, he added, when looked at in the aggregate. He offered this analogy: “The drama that is played in the fire experience of the United States is the same as two occupied 747 aircraft coming together in collision every month.”

With these assessments of the current state of the fire service in mind, the participants broke into seven groups to define issues for its future. Each task group would identify and prioritize recommendations, then report out at the end of the day when everyone met again as a group.

The two days flew quickly. The format was designed to elicit a wealth of ideas and then cull the most important. In the individual groups, each participant spent 20 minutes creating a list; when it came time to discuss items, each participant was asked to mention only the most important one on that person’s list. What follow are the suggestions that survived that elimination process.

Task Force 1: The Nation’s Fire Problem

The fire problem has decreased in magnitude, but its overall characteristics haven’t changed.

Smoke and heat detectors have had a major impact on fire death rates. However, more should be done locally to make sure those most susceptible to death by fire— children and the elderly—are protected by these devices.

The fire service has been ineffective at lobbying elected and appointed officials at all levels of government to convince them of the seriousness of the fire problem. The USFA should represent fire service interests and provide input to other federal and regulatory agencies. And Congress needs to be more sensitive to what it costs state and local governments to conform to new federal regulations.

Part of the solution is to establish, support, and inform a new fire service caucus in Congress. The fire service should find a common ground, speak with one voice, prepare a coherent program that will educate and motivate government officials, and become involved in local community groups.

Additional operations the fire service has taken on, such as hazardous-materials response and emergency medical services, have diverted resources from prevention and education.

A national data system is needed to provide accurate records of death and injuries. Congress needs to support it, and the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program should increase training in data analysis. The task force asked the USFA to prepare prototype analyses of different-size departments to serve as models for the national system.

To make the reporting consistent, the term fire death must be more clearly defined.

Task Force 2: Fire Service Operations

The fire service must overcome its reluctance to move beyond suppression, as well as its resistance to change, new technology such as computers and advanced communications equipment, and general lack of understanding of the fire problem on a larger-than-local scale.

Society’s influence on personnel must be recognized and addressed. Successful programs in detection and rehabilitation of substance abuse should be studied and communicated.

The failure rate of equipment is too high. There should be a way to prepare and nationally communicate the service records of products, with performance and safety as the main criteria.

Congress should provide the means to implement each and every federal mandate that affects the fire service (from such sources as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the U.S. Department of Transportation).

Answers to challenges in all operations areas start with the development of future leaders, which requires a program that puts the company officer on a career path to executive leadership. Officer development courses in command functions, interpersonal skills, and financial management should be mandated and available at the local, state, and federal levels. A system of relevant testing for promotion should be established. All training programs should have credibility with others involved in public management.

Task Force 3: Fire Service Management and Administration

Personnel health and safety was identified as a major issue, on which data must be much more complete if there’s to be improvement. All fire departments should adopt National Fire Protection Association Standard 1500, “Occupational Health and Safety Program for a Fire Department,” as a guideline. They should institute physical fitness standards and programs, as well as programs to test and rate fire apparatus and equipment. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome should be recognized as a public health issue and not be treated as a civil rights issue.

There are no adequate standards or methods for evaluating fire and emergency service organizations, their operations, or their minimum personnel levels for apparatus response; they should be developed.

Chief fire officers should implement the integrated emergency management system (IEMS) in their planning and operations at the local level.

Task Force 4: Fire and the Built Environment

The public should be made part of the solution; right now, it doesn’t realize the personal and business consequences of fire. A national fire prevention education plan which makes use of all media should be developed based on surveys and objective case studies of existing programs. Young children and teenagers need particular attention. Incentives for safety and deterrents against risks should be developed through tax and insurance laws and legal and social restraints.

Continued improvement is needed in ways to measure the fire hazards of contents within structures. Data on ignitability, suppressibility, toxicity, and fire growth will assist in preventing flashover and in designing automatic detection and suppression equipment.

The public doesn’t know the personal and business consequences of fire.

There should be a uniformity of criteria and scholarship levels for fire engineering degrees. Doctorate programs are needed.

Task Force 5: Fire and Rural Wildland Environment

The rural and wildland fire problem faces general apathy among politicians, the public, and even the fire service. Educational programs targeted at these groups must be properly marketed.

Local governments need to plan and control land use to take into account the effect of development on water supply, access roads, and fire hazards in the nation’s wildlands. The pressure on environmental systems created by people’s desire to live close to nature makes master planning all the more urgent.

Training must be more readily available on arson awareness and investigation, the incident command system, and fuel build-up forecasting as they relate to wildland fire hazards. The solution lies with the federal, state, and county agencies responsible for training. An assessment system for those needs should be developed, promoting multiagency involvement. Legislation should be developed to fund the strengthening of state training programs and secure a stipend for all programs that have volunteer attendance.

Inadequacy of fire protection resources could be overcome with a local and state group purchasing plan. Legislation to provide reasonable funding is also recommended.

Task Force 6: Fire Prevention

The need for an extensive national and local database was identified here as well as in all other workshops. Once developed, it will have unlimited value.

There’s an obvious need for minimum fire prevention education standards for pupils at each grade level.

An increase in the quality of the use of firefighters’ standby time is one of the solutions to the fire prevention and public education issue.

Federal incentives are lacking. This can be solved by measuring the results of fire prevention programs in terms of dollars saved and making government officials aware of the programs’ costeffectiveness.

Task Force 7: Preparing for the 21st Century

Part of the reason the United States has the highest fire death rate in the world is cultural apathy. Educational programs and harsh legal penalties will increase public concern. Attitudes that make fire socially acceptable or “someone else’s problem” should be identified and positive alternatives reinforced for each.

Intentions need an organizational infrastructure to make things happen. Fire service members should encourage their local members of Congress to get involved in the congressional fire caucus. Educational programs on fire protection issues should be established for policy-makers at all public and governmental levels. There should be fire safety leadership programs at the college level; incentives for fire protection organizations to work together; and neighborhoodwatch associations to increase education and fire prevention supervision.

Smart, affordable suppression and protection systems should be developed.

A national project should redefine the fire service’s roles, responsibilities, and priorities for the future.

Trade-off to time

Although the task force lists may seem long, in reality, there was so little time that most participants felt the results presented were a trade-off to time. It was difficult for any of the groups to narrow down the many, many thoughts generated into the few transmitted.

Lengthy comments from a few who had been part of the first America Burning session 14 years ago (which had met monthly for two years) challenged this group that it had said nothing new. “We said that years ago” was the stabbing comment.

But the problems remain and are as readily identified as they were years ago, perhaps even centuries ago. Frustration, reemphasis, and repetition are criteria for visibility and focus. So be it. The fire service has newer leadership and a greater awareness for change than it did 14 years ago. And it’s good for that leadership to believe it has developed its own goals, just as those who worked on the problems 14 years ago believed that the ideas were their ideas.

It’s good for the fire service leadership to believe it has developed its own goals.

In any event, the problems obviously haven’t been adequately addressed, and to set them on paper anew with increased understanding was indeed valuable.

Perhaps the opening comments of environmental protection specialist John Granito can serve as a summation.

Change the name—and the concept—of fire apparatus to “rapidintervention vehicles” to reflect a broader mission of protecting people from the built and human environments, he suggested. “The name should reflect multipurpose, emergency organizations designed, trained, and equipped to respond to a wide variety of emergency happenings not covered by law enforcement services. Most of the attention must be focused on the prevention of happenings.

“The future must be better off for our presence, and we, as a professional service, must be better off in it. We can then move into the future with a win-win situation.”

America Still Burning


America Still Burning


If it is allowed to grow, is fed and nurtured, adopted and supported by the fire service and related agencies, America Still Burning promises to be the guiding light of the fire service as it surges into the 21st century.

So indicated Clyde A. Bragdon, administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration. His message of encouragement was delivered to more than 70 fire service experts, building and industrial technologists, educators, and media members gathered by invitation at Tyson’s Corner, Va., in early December. Their work, it was hoped, would follow up the 1973 effort of 18 dedicated individuals—America Burning.

Outlining 91 action points, the original report was to guide the federal government as it joined the effort to solve the national fire problem and to fill public fire protection needs. The overall goal was to reduce fire death in America.

For 14 years, those efforts-—though understaffed and grossly underfunded—have been successful. Fire death and incidence are down, and we have the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy in place. Now what?

Answering that question was the goal of the 214-day December conference. Task groups formed and brainstormed areas defined as the fire problem, fire operations, management, the built environment, wildland fire, fire prevention, and the future of the fire service. A great deal was accomplished, and there were some common problems identified by all the workshops.

Education to reduce public and governmental apathy was foremost. Leadership development, it was felt, would create imaginative and forceful managers who would help the fire service evolve. These dynamics would (and must) come from within the service with public and government support.

New horizons in land use codes, building occupancy monitoring, personnel and operational standards for fire departments, and the emergence of congressional proaction (see “A former fire chief rallies a fire service caucus during his first year as a member of Congress,” in Dispatches, page 16) were only some of the ideas.

Criticism came from some of those intimately involved with the 1973 report. The problems, they argued, were already outlined before. Well, maybe it’s time for reidentification. The problems have existed since before Rome burned. Perhaps a new translation of old problems, still unsolved, will work.

If there’s a valid criticism, it’s time. Too little time to do so much. The report that evolved at the end of the few days was a compromise to time. Seven task forces tried to do in 2½ days what it took 18 fire service experts 2 years of meeting once a month to prepare.

The initial report of activities will be out in a few weeks. Additional fire service input will be encouraged. This is your calling. Make it evolve from within—but take the additional time to do it right.