The fire service is an “ever-changing” machine that keeps evolving to meet the needs of the citizens it is designed to protect. I don’t claim to be the greatest fire historian; however, I’m sure that in the beginning of the fire service in the United States, back in Ben Franklin’s day, it was hard to keep up with the changes in the service.
I can think of several “tools” that have become extinct since I entered the service in 1975. The first that comes to mind is the life net. When I came on, we carried them on all aerials. Ask around! Probably only a few of your “dinosaurs” have ever had the thrill of jumping into a life net and the thrill of catching someone in one like I have. The pompier ladder is another tool I used that is no longer on the apparatus.
Of all the advances, I would consider positive-pressure self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) to be the greatest. That along with National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500 and mandatory mask policies developed by the NFPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have extended the life expectancy of firefighters by at least 10 years over those who fought fires without them.
Besides what SCBAs have done for firefighters’ health, they have allowed us to more aggressively enter burning structures to aid victims and locate the fire.
—John “Skip” Coleman, deputy chief of fire prevention, Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue, is the author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997) and Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000). He is an editorial advisory board member of Fire Engineering and a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board.
Question: What is the greatest single advance in firefighting since motors replaced horses and hand pumps?
Rick Lasky, chief,
Lewisville (TX) Fire Department
Response: There have been so many significant changes that have impacted how we do business that it’s difficult to single one out. The advances made in our fire apparatus have been remarkable. Just park your antique fire engine next to one of your new engines and compare—the design, the pump, hydraulic ladder lifts, emergency lighting, booster tank size, heating and air conditioning, and the list goes on. The most important advance had to be going from open to enclosed cabs for firefighter safety to and from an incident and putting personnel all inside the cab.
The advances made in our turnout gear and the protection it can provide have made a big difference. We’re providing better protection to our troops, but at times it’s getting us in a little too far. We need to remember to train our firefighters on how well the gear can protect us but at the same time remind them that it can get us in too far and into trouble.
Ladder trucks’ going from wood to metal, aerial ladders, and power saws have made that end of truck work easier and safer.
Regarding prevention, smoke detectors and alarm systems are great advances, along with enhanced 911, mapping, and GIS programs.
Our training is better than it has ever been, but we still need to improve it. Thank God, we’re teaching our firefighters safety and survival training. We’re teaching them all how to go home.
Radio communications have come a long way, and our ability to provide our firefighters with a means to communicate with a portable radio is a great thing.
The list can go on and on, but at the top of the list has to be SCBA. When it comes to having improved our battle with fire, the SCBA has changed how we operate. No longer are we asked to go in and see how far we can get in, as was the case years ago. We took a beating in doing so—understanding that we either didn’t have an SCBA or what we had was so cumbersome that we didn’t want to use it. With today’s SCBAs and the ease of their use, we should hopefully see some cancer rates drop. What we’re burning today compared with what they were burning years ago has changed dramatically. Add to that the idea of an integrated PASS device, and you can see why SCBA is at the top of the list.
Leigh Hollins, battalion chief,
Cedar-Hammock (FL) Fire Rescue
Response: Electronic communication has been the greatest single advance. This would include the entire gamut of communications, including widespread telephone service, 911 systems, dispatch and paging capabilities, on-scene portable radio use, cell phone capabilities, and computer use.
We all take advancements for granted way too much. Imagine for a second, for a minute, that you had none of the above communication methods available, as was the case in the early 1900s. When citizens had a fire or witnessed a fire, they would have to notify the local fire station by whatever means the town or city had in place, such as ringing a town bell. The firefighters would then respond to the fire station and bring the equipment to the scene, all without communicating with Dispatch, which nowadays coordinates the response of the proper apparatus and personnel.
On arrival at the scene, units would operate as best they could, using only face-to-face communication. This may have worked with a small house fire, but imagine the problems when a large structure was involved—or a city block. Units inside could not communicate with units outside, C side could not talk to A side, roof operations could not talk to interior crews, and “charge the hydrant” was done how?
Think about how these same tasks are done now and how much time is saved receiving the alarm, getting the alarm to the firefighters, coordinating the proper response resources, and communicating “instantly” on-scene. In this business, “time” usually equals “amount of fire” and “numbers of dead/injured.” When incidents have a bad ending, with civilians or firefighters injured or killed, what is always at the top of the list of “lessons learned”? Communications. And that is with all the advancements we have seen in the past 75 years. Imagine trying to manage a fire scene in today’s environment without the “luxury” of today’s advancements. That is the reason communication is the greatest advancement in firefighting.
Bob Oliphant, lieutenant,
Kalamazoo (MI) Department of Public Safety
Response: While the evolution of engine-driven fire apparatus ranks as the greatest development in firefighting, I think the evolution of personal protective equipment is a close second. Engine-driven fire apparatus get firefighters to the scene with the tools needed for the job, but personal protective equipment actually allows firefighters to do the job. Fire apparel and SCBA are two examples that come to mind.
The design of today’s fire apparel is a huge improvement over what used to be nothing more that a heavy-duty raincoat and plastic hard hat. Helmets, gloves, boots, and bunker gear have improved dramatically over the years. I have been issued several sets of fire gear during my career, and I am always amazed at how much better the new gear is compared with what it replaced. It’s lighter, fits better, and offers better thermal protection.
SCBA is another great advancement in personal protective equipment. It enabled the aggressive interior attack and more effective search and rescue, which have become the standard in modern firefighting operations. The SCBA that I started with had steel tanks and weighed approximately 38 pounds. It was cumbersome, and many firefighters avoided using it despite the protection it provided. I know it’s still being used, but there is no comparison with today’s lighter and improved SCBA. Extended duration, reduced exertion, integrated PASS, and redundant safety features allow safer, more effective fireground operations.
Even though improvements in personal protective equipment may not have been as dramatic as the development of engine-driven fire apparatus, I think it has been just as significant. Personal protective equipment has enabled firefighters to be safer and more effective in performing fireground operations.
Peter Sells, district chief—officer development,
Toronto (ON) Fire Services
Response: In the fire service of the 21st century, we have at our disposal technologies, procedures, and materials that only the most visionary of our great-grandfathers could have imagined. Many of these advances in firefighting represent technical improvements over what came before. Turnout coats and leather helmets gave way to bunker suits, flash hoods, and composite helmets. Our apparatus get us to the scene faster and safer than in the past (as long as we use that 1960s innovation—the seatbelt) and allow us to pump far greater volumes of water. But our predecessors also got to the scene fast and pumped water.
There are a few genuine innovations that were without parallel in bygone days. The one with the most significant impact on the effectiveness and safety of modern firefighters is SCBA. The level of protection of our current bunker gear would be meaningless if we were not able to breathe. The benefits of thermal imaging cameras, portable radios, and even incident management systems would be lessened if we were restricted by the lack of SCBA to only minimal interior firefighting operations.
Those of us in the middle or latter years of our career can remember the “old guys” who were around when we were rookies. They exemplified a workplace culture surrounding the use of SCBA that was in total contradiction to the training we had received and contrary to the prevailing health and safety legislation of the day. These “old guys” were no different from us. We aren’t smarter than they were or any less brave. We are just making better choices regarding the use of technology and discipline in the workplace.
Nicholas DeLia, chief/fire marshal,
Groton City (CT) Fire Department
Response: We need to split this question into two parts: standard equipment and standard practices. The evolution of the SCBA is without a doubt the single most important technological development in the fire service. Its development, which is still underway, has undoubtedly led to a safer work environment. It was not that long ago that the first-due units did not put on SCBAs. The theory was that speed in suppression, without taking the time to don the equipment, was more efficient and safer than having to fight a larger or more serious fire with the equipment on. The second-due units would take the time to put on the SCBAs and relieve those involved in the battle. If we review the number of smoke inhalation injuries in the past 20 to 30 years, however, we would see a dramatic reduction in those cases. Future technological development is wide open as we move into the next century. Heads-up displays, temperature exposure readings, crew and command level communications capabilities, and remote individual evacuation signals are already in the field being tested. If we combine these and future technologies with the education to recognize dangerous personal situations, life should only get safer. The expansion of incident management concepts has undoubtedly improved not only the emergency services our customers receive but also the safety level of those providing this service. We should be forever indebted to those individuals who have led the way and continue to change how we do business. It does not matter what system you use or what you call your work units.
The mere fact that we attempt to control our units or at least know where they are and what they are doing will save firefighters’ lives. In a similar vein to the SCBA, these systems continue to be changed and modified as our experience expands. If we continue to combine these technologies with command and control tools, we will hopefully reach our ultimate goal—the reduction of the firefighter injuries and deaths we continue to experience.
Katherine T. Ridenhour, captain,
Aurora (CO) Fire Department
Response: Initially, this question appeared to have a straightforward answer. Coming from the standpoint of technological advances, the safety envelope for firefighters (SCBA and personal protective equipment, or PPE) may have been the winner. The SCBA/PPE combination allows firefighters to go into fire, smoke, and superheated atmospheres not permitted to our forefathers. However, at times, the fire service has taken the safety envelope to extreme and has gone too deep into the fire environment, thereby injuring or killing firefighters, so it doesn’t seem right to give this equipment credit for being the single greatest advancement in the fire service. The greatest advancement should focus on what has totally positively impacted life safety—of firefighters and the citizens we serve.
My next choice for the greatest advancement was the incident command system (ICS). It totally changed the way the fire service did business. The introduction of an organized, safe approach to firefighting has definitely saved more firefighters’ lives than any piece of equipment we carry. The system gave us the ability to logically organize a fire scene with strategic goals, safe practices, and accountability and is critical to modern-day fireground operations.
However, the argument could be made that education is the greatest advancement—education of the public to be fire safe has definitely saved the lives of citizens. Education of the firefighter in terms of building construction, fire behavior, strategy, and tactics—the tools of our trade—has definitely made us more prepared, knowledgeable, and safe.
But in the end, the tools that have saved more lives than any piece of equipment, any command structure, or any educational program may be the smoke detector teamed with the quick response sprinkler system. Early warning of occupants saves lives; early notification to the fire department saves lives. Activation of sprinkler systems can prevent fires from becoming deadly. Put them in every home, every business, every high-rise, and every warehouse, and our communities would truly be fire safe. Even if these measures were taken universally, the fire service would never become obsolete: Acts of nature, illegal activities, terrorism, construction features, and especially human nature will always ensure our value and ability to earn a paycheck.
Josh Thompson, lieutenant,
Avon (IN) Fire Department
Response: The most significant advancement is the invention of the SCBA. The SCBA has been an enormous factor in the advancement of today’s fire service for countless reasons. We can boil these reasons down to the ability to enter environments that would kill or seriously injure while we mitigate the various emergencies we encounter. We must also consider the ongoing advancement of the SCBA that continues to this date, which allows us to work safer.
Steven M. De Lisi, assistant chief,
Virginia Air National Guard
Fire/Rescue, Richmond, Virginia
Response: The greatest single advancement is not isolated to a technological advancement, nor is it limited to a specific point in history. Instead, this milestone is one that represents a culmination of technology, teamwork, and training and is something that can be attained every day. Just remember that the next time you return to the station safe and with your crew intact you will have achieved the greatest advancement in the fire service. If in doubt, ask your family.
Lance C. Peeples, instructor,
St. Louis County (MO) Fire Academy
Response: Many technological advances have improved the effectiveness and efficiency of America’s firefighters. The radio and computer provide access to information with unprecedented speed. Improvements in the firefighters’ protective clothing have no doubt reduced the number of burn injuries our members suffer each year. Thermal imaging cameras provide us with sight where before we stumbled about blindly, and large-diameter hose allows us to literally move the fire hydrant where we need it.
It seems to me, however, that the greatest single advancement has been the SCBA, a tool that truly allows us to take the battle to the enemy. No doubt thousands more of our brethren would have died over the years had SCBA not found its way onto our fire trucks. Fortunately, firefighters have always been able to take the technology of the era and use it to solve the problem at hand; indeed, that is what defines us.
Kai W. Rieger, firefighter/paramedic,
Jackson Township (OH) Fire Department
Response: The development of the SCBA is the single greatest advancement in modern-day firefighting. SCBA has saved countless lives by enabling primary searches to be performed. Toxic and oxygen-deficient atmospheres, as well as blinding smoke, do not stop us from searching today, but such conditions made searches very difficult and sometimes impossible for our forefathers. The mask assembly provides heat protection for our eyes, nose, and other facial features. It also keeps searing heat from entering our airways.
SCBA, coupled with modern protective clothing, has made it possible to save a tremendous amount of additional property because engine companies can get closer to the seat of the fire and properly extinguish it. No fire company today could “make” the hallways, complete the searches, or get the lines into place without SCBA.
Eric Poach, EMT-P/captain,
Monroeville (PA) Fire Department
Response: The greatest innovation is without a doubt the SCBA. Chief Bill Clark, in his book Firefighting Principles and Practices, 1st ed. (Fire Engineering, 1974), mentioned that if you were to bring back an old chief from 100 years ago and put him in command of a fire, as a whole he would still know what to do: extinguish, ventilate, and save people. The artillery would be a little bigger, large-diameter hose and such, but the basic principles would be the same. I think that statement is true, but the ability to go into a toxic environment with more than a wet mustache would make a huge difference in today’s tactics.
When I began in the fire service in the mid-1970s, we still had the SCBAs in suitcases, and there were only a couple on each apparatus. A few guys would crawl in; squirt a little water; and hopefully, by then, the guys with the SCBAs would be in. We never wore them at car fires, unknown burning piles of junk. It’s funny now to think that I yell at a 20-year-old for not having his SCBA on at a dumpster fie.