Banned by Popular Demand

A photo has a thousand lessons in wisdom and, quite possibly, a thousand choices for opinions, writes Bobby Halton.
editor’s opinion |
Bobby Halton

My friend Tom sent me a note: “I have just received my always anticipated current issue of Fire Engineering, the April 2021 magazine. I look forward to the front cover photo for many reasons, first being that the photos are always interesting, very vivid, and a good snapshot to discuss tactics around the firehouse kitchen table. This April issue brought up a big red flag in safety. There is a ladder crew on the roof cutting a vent hole without SCBA on. Why would your magazine approve a front cover photo with such a dangerous, unsafe action in the foreground? It’s 2021, and we are much smarter than we were 20 and even 10 years ago when it comes to firefighter safety and cancer awareness. Haven’t we learned enough about the use of SCBA and operating safer at these fires? There is no excuse for not donning and using your mask on every fire.”

Tom is a thoughtful person, so I replied: “Thank you for your note, and your second sentence explains exactly why that photo was used.” As to his comment “I look forward to the front cover photo for many reasons,” my hope is that every cover is used to create a training lesson “locally.” My hope was that folks would take that photo and discuss how they view roof operations and safety. I do not condone fighting fire without SCBA. I would not send crews who were not properly donned with SCBA to a single-family residential roof.

The firefighters in the photo would disagree with us, and that’s what makes America a great place and the fire service as a mission so effective. The photo is from a region where personnel do not routinely wear their SCBA when they go above to do ventilation or roof work. I am not going to be an apologist, but that is the reality among outstanding firefighters in many regions. I have had several conversations over the years about this very issue, and people have their reasons and concerns, with which I do not completely agree. However, I do not run their organizations or the fire service in general; I am simply an agent for communication within the fire service.

There’s also a very interesting blurb on the inside of the magazine about that cover; I would hope that Tom took a moment to look at that as well. There was a hidden danger at that fire that was concealed by the construction type, and their familiarity with the construction type was one of the points of that cover. To quote the old phrase, “You can’t always tell a book by its cover.”

Picking covers for the magazine, which I have done for the past 16 years, has always been an interesting enterprise. There is a fine line between reality— which this photo is—and censorship. The firefighters depicted are not alone in their approach to roof work. I may not agree with their reasons, but does that mean that I should never use a photo of these firefighters because of it? Obviously, I have chosen to use it with the very hope that firefighters like Tom would see it and say, “Boy, I disagree, and here’s why,” with their crews locally. I’m hoping that Tom did just that.

Fire Engineering once ran a white cover. The editor called it a perfect fire photo. His point was that at every fire, at some point, someone is doing something that might be outside the norms of what you or I might consider correct or safe. Ergo, there is no perfect fire photo. I agree with the point of the white cover. But this photo was not, in fact, just a random second in time when something was happening that was outside normal safety parameters; it depicts normal operations in many areas. When I chose this cover, I hoped I would receive a letter like Tom’s.

My hope was that firefighters might speak with their crews about the importance of protecting their airways. The photo should also remind all of us that what we think may not be what others think, and it’s important that we try first to understand why they may think that way and then tell them what we think and why. These are incredibly well-trained, devoted, disciplined, and intelligent firefighters. Some ancient wisdom to paraphrase from the Bible: “A wise man seeks understanding, whereas a fool wants his opinion heard.” I agree with that statement wholeheartedly and, for full disclosure, I get paid to publish my albeit foolish “opinion” monthly.

There was a certain irony in my using that photo. I loved the unknown danger of the basement in a seemingly innocent home, and I disagree with operating without an SCBA on the roof. I also know that censorship is a very dangerous path to go down; I loathe it in all its forms. I will and do defend the most objectionable of thoughts, words, and opinions exactly because without that defense, we would have no freedom at all, nor I any right to my own thoughts and opinions. Without freedom, we would have no innovation.

Jefferson once said, “In a free society with a government based on reason, it is inevitable that there will be no uniform opinion about important issues. Those accustomed to suppression and control by governmental authority see this as leading only to chaos. But a government of the people requires difference of opinion in order to discover truth and to take advantage of the opportunity that only understanding brings.”

I have listened to others who have said we should never show any photos with unsafe practices because of the possible impressions that they could make. That would be dishonest, denying reality, and incredibly insulting to the intelligence of firefighters. So, there we are: A photo has a thousand lessons in wisdom and, quite possibly, a thousand choices for opinions.

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