Your Behavior Comes from Ben Franklin's DNA: Fast, Close, Wet, Risk, Injury, Death

When I was a rookie fireman in 1970 at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department (KVFD) Company 33, Prince George’s County Fire Department, (PGFD) MD, an old timer (he was 35, I was 20) told me, “The next call you go on may be the biggest fire in your...


Drs. Kunadharaju, Smith, and DeJoy, from the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, published a paper titled “Line of Duty Deaths among U.S. Firefighters: An Analysis of Fatality Investigations.” They studied 189 NIOSH reports that included 213 LODDs from 2004 to 2009. The NIOSH reports made a total of 1,167 recommendations to reduce firefighter injury and death. The researchers categorized the recommendations into 5 factors: Incident Command; Personnel; Equipment; Operations/Tactics; and External. The researchers applied root-cause analysis techniques to the data set to determine the basic or higher order causes that they classified as: under resourcing; inadequate preparation for/anticipation of adverse events; incomplete adoption of incident command procedures; and sub-optimal personnel readiness. An important point they make is that these higher order causes “…do not provide any definitive insights as to their origin,” but “… may actually be tapping the basic culture of firefighting.” The researchers go on to make the following comment about the core culture of firefighting:

“Operating with too few resources, compromising certain roles and functions, skipping or short-changing operational steps and safeguards and relying on extreme individual efforts and heroics may reflect the cultural paradigm of firefighting. This should not be construed to be a culture of negligence or incompetence, but rather a culture of longstanding acceptance and tradition. Within many fire service organizations, these operational tenets may be accepted as “the way we do things.” Moreover, this tolerance of risk may be reinforced both externally and internally through the positive public image of firefighters and firefighting and internally through the fire service’s own traditions and member socialization.”

Chief Brunacini confirms these comments from Kunadharaju, Smith and DeJou with the following statement, as only he can, in firefighter language:

“When the fire kills us, our department typically conducts a huge ritualistic funeral ceremony, engraves our name on the honor wall and makes us an eternal hero. Every LODD gets the same terminal ritual regardless if the firefighter was taking an appropriate risk to protect a savable life or was recreationally freelancing in a clearly defensive place. A Fire Chief would commit instant occupational suicide by saying that the reason everyone is here today in their dress blues is because the dearly departed failed to follow the department safety plan. Genuine bravery and terminal stupidity both get the same eulogy. Our young firefighters are motivated and inspired to attack even harder by the ceremonialization of our battleground deaths.”

For the past 275 years, fire service DNA has been made up of these six firefighter genes FAST, CLOSE, WET, RISK, INJURY, DEATH (FCWRID) these are the underlying assumptions which are taken-for granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feeling and are the ultimate source of values and action.

The entire fire service discipline and general public use the FCWRID gene sequence or combination of the genes to predict, justify, explain, accept, reward and improve the fire service. Before you all tar and feather me, or burn me in effigy, remember we and the general public do not do this consciously with malice or incompetence. We learned it from our ancestors who were doing the best they could at the time.

FAST Thinking

I will use just one firefighter gene, FAST, to illustrate how it influences all levels of fire service culture and our behavior.

Artifact: lights and sirens, Opticom, response time standards, state and federal laws that exempt seatbelt use by firefighters, running to the apparatus when a building fire is announced, political discourse related to closing fire stations and increased response time; “If we close these fire stations our average response time will go from 4 minutes and 40 seconds to 5 minutes and 10 seconds.”

Espoused Beliefs and Values: Closing a fire station puts the public at risk because we will not be FAST, if I put my seatbelt on it will slow me down, I can’t put my seatbelt on with all my bunker gear on, my bailout equipment keeps me from putting on my seatbelt, no one beats us into our first-due area, no one steals our fire, firefighter safety is important, we have SOPs, the company officer did not have the time to look at side charley before entering the front door because the fast attack was used, the officer left their portable radio on the fire truck, the crew fell through the floor, no mayday was called, the C.O. and firefighter died in the basement fire making the ultimate sacrifice.

Underlying Assumption: I must be FAST; one of the worst things that can happen is for another fire company to beat you into your first-due area. A fire chief told me, “If we did not respond with lights and siren on all calls, we would not be an emergency service.” Citizens will say, “It took the fire department a long time to get here.” Get in there and get the fire, no one steals our fire. Firefighters get injured and killed responding to alarms in vehicle crashes without their seatbelt on. This is considered a line-of-duty death with full ceremonial honors at the funeral, community-wide shared grief, and LODD cash benefits from local, state and federal levels.