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A Call to Reform the Fire Service in 2011

Tradition: the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting. A continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.

The fire service is based upon tradition, some still good, some outdated, most still applicable with a few cultural adjustments as we go along. With the New Year upon us it offers a perfect time to evaluate these traditions and make those needed adjustments. As Father Time ends his journey and passes his banner to the New Year's baby, many of us take stock in our lives and use it as a starting line for a new and improved self. For example, exercise more, eat better, be nicer to the lieutenant. As a profession dedicated to the wellbeing of others, this is also a prudent time for us to take stock in our profession and use this time to work towards a new and improved service.

It is time that we examine our past in order to reevaluate our future and set a solid course, and when it comes to fire prevention, we need to take a very hard look at our service as a whole and how we approach it and how it impacts our community and our firefighters; and how we conform to the value as the community judges it based upon today's expectations. It is a time to question our traditions as it relates to prevention and our traditional roles in the community.

There are lives out there right now, in your very community -- possibly even in your family, who may not be with us by this time next year. They will lose their life in a preventable fire. How am I so sure of this? All fires are preventable with the exception of maybe those caused by Mother Nature, and if the fire was not preventable due to, let's say a lightning strike, the subsequent deaths definitely were.

Traditionally the fire service has approached fire prevention as a once a year event involving fire truck tours, show and tell, puppet shows and clowning, handing out smoke detectors, station open houses, banners and posters, and a TV interview or two. But a good fire prevention program involves constant contact and exposure to our citizens. One of the biggest challenges to our efforts is an increasingly busy and unfocused society that fears everything from terrorism to natural disasters -- but not fire. This means that your citizen's time is prioritized to that which they feel is important, and the time they are willing to give you will be based upon where you fit in that hierarchy. If you are a "one time a year wonder" who pesters people only annually in October, or even worse, waits until people contact you for a presentation, your fire prevention program will not be very successful and your firefighters placed at additional risk.

So this New Year make your resolution to change this and increase your prevention/public outreach and adopt it as an overall operational priority for your department. Not only are your efforts going to produce results in the reduction of fires and risk, but your department's exposure to those you serve, thus increasing the awareness of your department's capability and your value to those who hold the purse strings. This is not the traditional approach to fire services which has largely placed its value in suppression and response - but again, it is the new year!

To accomplish this, look beyond just the fire causes; such as overloaded outlets or candles. Look deeper into the dynamics of your community in terms of not just the causes of fire, but also the culture, the economics, the social issues, and how that may all relate back to the fire problem and how you can help provide resolutions to it. Simply saying that unattended cooking in a particular community is the leading cause of fire and planning on handing out cooking safety pamphlets is simply not enough. You need to have more information on these citizens and of their situation. You need to have an understanding of the problem, not only at its face value, but the dynamics of it all.

Why is understanding all of this so important?

Think about our own government and the frustrations of our country and the result of the recent elections. Many people feel that those in Washington are out of touch, and do not understand nor comprehend the problems of those they serve; thus, the end result was -- they were voted out! Still today they continue to talk, we continue to ignore and become increasingly frustrated, and we place no value on what they have to say.

Could we be viewed in the same light by the citizens we serve? A governmental body who sits in a building all day playing checkers, collecting a paycheck for sleeping, and who is giving a single mom who is working two-three jobs a pamphlet to read and telling her she needs to purchase a fire extinguisher when she can't even afford her rent? Or telling a senior citizen on fixed income that using her gas stove to heat her home is unsafe? Do we have a relationship with those we protect, and more important, those most at risk, that is at such a level that they feel we understand their community, their problems and their issues, thus receptive to our messages? That we are not just another governmental body who is dictating to them what they should and should not do? A governmental body they pay for yet receive no services from unless they suffer a tragedy?

After all who are you more likely to take advice from? A friend or a stranger?

This is an important aspect in fire prevention we overlook - relationships with those we serve. We continue to approach fire prevention, and many times fire services in general, in the same traditional fashion and continue to wonder why, with all the technology and advancements we have in our country, we remain a leader in fires and fire deaths? Why the youngest and oldest in our country, those most vulnerable and in need of our protection, make up the majority of those dying in an event we have sworn to protect them from? Why do we continue to be a nation who continues to put its resources on the reactive side of fire protection, and continue to throw firefighters at preventable problems? Why are we a nation of firefighters who are forced, at every budget, to fight tooth and nail for the tools and resources we need to do our job and go home safe?

How can you start now to get involved with those you serve and those most at risk to develop those relationships in order to effect change? Think outside the box? Who are your stake holders? Who else may be active, or would like to be active, in your community? What resources are out there that the fire department can develop a partnership with to facilitate solutions; everything from free smoke detectors to the generation of funds to assist those in need survive and minimize risk -- like assisting with utility bills for senior citizens so they stop taking unsafe measures to warm-cool their homes.

Traditional fire service roles? Absolutely not! But, as stated, maintaining the traditional role is why we are in this mess in the first place in terms of fire occurrences and fire deaths; and also why fire department budgets have been devastated with the economy. What our society values has dramatically changed and we have not. As a fire service we need to be the solutions to our community's problems as best we can; our society wants problem solvers and governmental services who understand their needs.

So how do you accomplish this type of relationship?

Are there any planned community events coming up? Check with the local churches and community centers to find out if any neighborhood programs are scheduled in the coming months. Check with your city or county youth and senior citizen services to see if any events are on the calendar that you can get involved with. How about neighborhood watch meetings or home owner association gatherings?

General conversations during the meetings can be generated between firefighters and the citizens that can be more effective than an official presentation, and a great deal of information learned on the priorities of the community and what they feel are the major issues needing to be addressed. As time goes on and your firefighters become more intertwined with the citizens, and now with your new understanding of this community and their priorities and concerns you can work in a fire safety presentation tailored to their needs and interests.

If there no community events planned, how about planning one yourself, and utilize the above mentioned services to support or add to your event? How do you get people to show up? Appeal to their interests. What do you think they are interested in or would appeal to them? Could you get sponsors to support your effort? Hold a cookout? Have games for children? Invite a special guest like a local sports icon or celebrity? Let's face it, everyone is interested in that which is free, so is there an insurance company that would donate smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, and if you have two-story homes in this area,rescue ladders?

The idea behind an event like this is geared more for a "meet and greet" than fire safety. It is a relationship developer, a rapport builder that is necessary in order to maximize your now tailored messages throughout the year; because now they are coming from a friend who understands their needs and genuinely cares for their wellbeing, who is involved in their daily life, and not another governmental entity who shows an interest only once and year and insists on dictating what they can or cannot do.

Fire prevention is about relationships between the fire service and the public we serve, and those relationships are also the lifeline of your department's ability to effectively deliver services. Spend this time to plan out your year to generate and develop those relationships; so come next October your messages will have a greater impact and you will affect the changes needed to reduce fires and exposure to risk that your personnel face.

Once again society has changed along with what they expect and value. While the fire service may influence, we cannot dictate, how society evolves. But no matter how the evolution develops, we are stuck dealing with the end results. So we must evolve ourselves as well and find new ways to deliver our services constantly to what society needs and has come to expect in order to be efficient. As firefighters we cannot simply accept things as they are, especially when it results in loss and risk, and raise our hands and walk away.

Simply put, times have changed and so must we -it's time accept that fact.

Use 2011 to reform our fire service and break with a traditional approach that has not produced the results we need. Tradition has many places in the fire service -- but no place in fire prevention.

DANIEL BYRNE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a firefighter/paramedic, with the Burton Fire District in Burton, SC. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he holds both an associate and bachelors degree in fire science, is a National Fire Academy Alumni, and a veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm war with the U.S. Marine Corps. Daniel is the recipient of local and state awards for public educations and relations. Daniel has been guest on two Firehouse.com podcasts: 2010 Fire and Life Safety Roundtable and Developing and Adapting Successful Fire Prevention Applications. View all of Daniel's magazine and online articles here. You can reach Daniel by e-mail at dbyrne.burtonfd@gmail.com.

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