Letters to the Editor: October 2019

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Residential fire sprinklers

Following is a letter sent on July 18, 2019, to the U.S. Fire Administrator, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs by attendees in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program.

To: G. Keith Bryant, Administrator, U.S. Fire Administration; Harold A. Schaitberger, president, International Association of Fire Fighters; Dan Eggleston, president, International Association of Fire Chiefs

As leaders in the nation’s fire service and attendees in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program, we are requesting that the U.S. Fire Administration, International Association of Fire Fighters, and International Association of Fire Chiefs join together to lead the federal government to require that all housing stock that is purchased using either Federal Housing Administration (FHA) or Veterans Administration (VA) funds or loan guarantees be required to have residential fire sprinkler systems installed in any newly constructed homes. Our request is based on the multiple benefits related to improving the health and safety of emergency responders and the community.

To date, most states have adopted some form of presumptive legislation related to cancer in firefighters and occupational exposure. However, residential fire sprinkler systems and their reduction in life safety hazard and the release of toxic products of exposure reduce responders’ exposure to these products, reducing the potential for carcinogen exposure. Similarly, by reducing the life hazard to occupants, the need for high-risk fire suppression and support operations is also limited, resulting in fewer injuries to responders.

The loan guarantees in question are funded by taxpayers. In the past, as seen with homes with asbestos, radon, and lead, VA and FHA loans have been conditioned on reducing the risk to occupants. The requirement advocated by the undersigned reflects this commitment to ensuring that the federal government fund homes that are safe and pose no unreasonable risk to the occupants and to responding firefighters. The requirement of residential fire sprinklers reflects this principle.

We are calling on the leadership of the nation’s fire and emergency services to step forward to reduce the risk to emergency response personnel and their families, ensure that our communities are safe from fire, and that the resources dedicated to ensuring community health and safety are judiciously and safely applied. We are asking that you band together to mobilize your considerable resources to champion the installation of residential fire sprinklers at the federal level utilizing the full political weight of your organizations for the purpose of reducing the risk of illness and death to America’s firefighters. We also request that you engage other partners, such as the National Association of State Fire Marshals and National Fire Protection Association, in order to gain critical support and to demonstrate a unified front in improving responder safety, reducing firefighter cancer risk, and improving community health and safety related to residential fire.

Thank you for your consideration, and we remain committed to the issue and available to offer any assistance you require.


Walter Latta Jr., Concord, MA;
David Langenberg, Houston, TX;
Rick Deibert, Tecumseh, KS;
Mark Gugel, Carmel, IN;
Wayne Friedman, Cortland, NY;
Steven C. Fessler, Sioux Falls, SD;
Darin Myers, Haus, KS;
Dave Donohue, Hagerstown, MD;
Lee Richardson, Altoona, IA;
Robby Bergerson, Waco, TX;
Matt Hallock; Monterey Park, CA;
Tony Burr, Edwardsville, KS;
David Jones, Keller, TX;
Adam Hatch, Kingston, MA;
Dustin J. Fields, Yuma, AZ

cc: Tonya Hoover, Superintendent, National Fire Academy; Julius Halas, President, National Association of State Fire Marshals; William Webb, Executive Director, Congressional Fire Services Institute; Heather Schafer, Chief Executive Officer, National Volunteer Fire Council; Ron Siarnicki, Executive Director, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation; Bobby Halton, Editor, Fire Engineering; Jim Pauley, President, National Fire Protection Association

What qualifies you to teach?

We look to our fire service instructors to build the foundation for a recruit’s entire career. We are reliant on their ability to create a base that is solid and true, one onto which they can add information and skills without the fear of the base failing them. What methods are we using to filter our instructor pool so that it is capable of accomplishing this task?

If I were to tell you that I wanted to teach high school science to your children, what qualifications would you expect me to have? If we use the average fire department instructor standards, it might look like this: I graduated high school, passed science, am over the age of 18, and took a 40-hour class on how to deliver PowerPoint® classes. Impressed? High school teachers are entrusted to prepare our children for entrance into the world. They are educated far beyond just “passing the classes” and wanting to teach.

Wouldn’t it make sense for us to use similar methods to create fire instructors who teach our newest members? Shouldn’t a career that is potentially lethal have the best instructors to start with?

Most departments use some combination of seniority, subject matter expertise, and desire of the candidate to determine who qualifies for the most important position in the fire service. Although these are all important traits for instructors, they need to be complemented with proper instructor preparation.

It is unfortunate that our industry lacks standards when it comes to instructor qualifications and certification. I have known instructors who are in it only for the overtime, building up their pay to increase the percentage they will get on retirement. Some feel the need for power, lording over the recruits and presenting themselves as experts without being questioned. There are some instructors who are just out of school themselves and have a few years on the job who believe they have enough experience to teach someone else “how it’s done.”

On the plus side, there are those whose altruistic nature and subject matter expertise make them almost a perfect fit for recruit school instruction. With a little additional training, they are the mentors our future firefighters need and deserve. I guess the question, then, is: How do we help create that perfect instructor? Although the answer is not necessarily readily apparent, I believe a few simple steps may help.

Establish a recruit cadre to groom the next generation of firefighters. Members of this cadre should not feel they are “owed” the position based on rank or years of service or that recruits should put them on a pedestal because they have immense knowledge. Neither should they say, “I have forgotten more about firefighting than you will ever know.”

The Training Division, chief, or whoever selects instructors needs to have the interests of the recruits foremost in mind. This isn’t a popularity contest; it’s the selection of the men and women who will guarantee the continued success of the organization—subject matter experts who are modest and interested enough to teach. They are the diamonds in the rough we need to mold into instructors. Teach them to deliver curriculum the way it’s supposed to be done. Replace the droning on of reading PowerPoint slides with a connected, interactive, adult learning environment. Create a dynamic environment in which the instructors adapt the curriculum to the students.

This system works in an academic setting, and it can work in the fire service as well. We need to take charge of our future as instructors and create a new generation of firefighters capable of facing the challenges ahead. This is still the best job in the world. Let’s keep it that way by building our replacements to think and act that way.

Chiefs have a responsibility as well. We may have to spend more of the budget on additional classes and seminars for instructors. Requiring a higher level of proficiency in the classroom and on the drill field rarely comes without cost. Convincing the taxpayers, mayor, and council members will be difficult. The offset? We will be investing in a better, more efficient training program and creating a better, more efficient firefighter. It’s time to blend the science of learning (academia) with the science of firefighting (tradesmanship). Let’s find an entirely new way to train.

Chris Garniewicz
Rescue 335
Bluffton Township (SC) Fire District

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