Our society's culture and values have changed, and so must we if we are to not only survive, but thrive. That said, I recently heard a fire captain say, "We are becoming too safety conscious," and contended that such an attitude is destroying what the fire service is supposed to be all about. The topic is being discussed and debated across firehouse kitchen tables from coast to coast: Is this new-generational interest in prevention destroying the fire service? Whether it is about the prevention of firefighter deaths and injuries, or the prevention of fire and civilian deaths, it is a question that must be addressed if our profession is to grow.
The debate is akin to the generational age-old argument that has spanned the centuries. Whether it is the "Greatest Generation," the "Counter Culture Generation," "Generation X" or the upcoming "Generation Y," each generation shakes its head at the newcomers and swears that, "This is the generation that will destroy this country," yet obviously this has not been the case.
While arguments can be made for the perceived changes in family values, respect and even work ethic, there is no disputing the fact that since the "Greatest Generation," these supposed upcoming "doomsday" generations have put a man on the Moon, explore Mars, cure disease and even invent technology so advanced that we can communicate in seconds with people across the globe. So while each generation may bring some uncomfortable differences, we still live in the greatest country on Earth, and we are still changing and advancing by addressing issues that will make our lives and our world better; i.e. the revival of interest in taking on global warming.
So now back to this question as it relates to the fire service. Our profession has also come a long way. With the advent of flash hoods, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and full turnout gear; and as more and more firefighters donned this new gear, the heads of the previous generation started shaking, "This isn't the real fire service anymore." Now, as fire service leaders push for sprinkler-system mandates and direct their fire companies into the street for inspections and other prevention activities, again come the shaking heads and comments such as, "I didn't join the fire service for this" and, of course just as with the arguments against providing EMS services, "I'm just here to fight fires."
But just as with this nation's accomplishments since the "Greatest Generation," the positives ushered in throughout the generational changes in our fire service cannot be denied. According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports, firefighter deaths are down 60% and firefighter injuries are down about 78% since 1978. While overall residential fires have risen since 1999, there is no denying that we are still better off today with a 46% reduction in civilian fire deaths and 48% decrease in structure fires since the 1970s.
This means that today, more firefighters are alive and with their families, and they are living longer and healthier lives because they are being exposed to less risk and fewer carcinogens due to the new gear, new equipment and reductions in fire responses since three decades ago. These reductions in fire response obviously correlate to the increased fire safety and well-being of our public — their safety equals our safety.
We are a brother/sisterhood who looks out for one another, and we are a profession committed and dedicated to preserving life and property, so how exactly are these changes, changes that supposedly would bring an end to the fire service (from "leather lungs" to SCBA), a bad thing? Change is not always bad, but it is always inevitable. For change to take place smoothly and effectively, it must be accepted and embraced, because every day in our profession that it isn't, lives are put at risk unnecessarily.
So the question remains, "Is this new-generational interest in prevention destroying the fire service?" The fact is that prevention is not destroying the fire service, it is keeping it alive. Not only for the obvious reasons stated above in saving the lives of civilians and firefighters through a reduction in risk, but the perceived value of the fire service within the community. Our profession is not the only entity going through change; so is society and the people who form it. To survive and grow, to maintain that special place within our communities that we are known for, we must also change and evolve with our environment. As with any entity that does not adapt, we become extinct.
The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co., the first steam railroad service in America, once had the longest railroad in the world and remained in service until the 1980s before going out of business; however, we never flew "South Carolina Canal Airlines" or sailed on "South Carolina Canal Cruise Lines." The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co. was focused on the railroad business, and not the bigger picture — the transportation business — and thus it became extinct. While society embraced changes in technology and transportation, the South Carolina Canal Railroad Co. did not, and others took the lead in transportation.
Society continues to change, and just like the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co., if the fire service does not look at the bigger picture of public service and how society defines that, then think about who could be providing our services in the future. We have cornered and mastered the market in fire suppression and our communities will always turn to us when the shout of "Fire!" rings out, and we should always have pride in that. But we can no longer stop there and rest on our laurels, or we will soon be typecast and placed on the wall like a fire extinguisher in a glass cabinet with the words, "Break only in the event of fire" posted on the front. While people will rush to find that extinguisher when there is a fire, how many of them give it a second thought on a daily basis, and when they do, do they view it as something valuable and positive or as an ugly necessity? How much money are people willing to spend on something they believe they will never have to use?
Today's society understands and values prevention and risk management because people take college classes called "Total Environment, Health & Safety Management" and "Legal Aspects of Safety and Health," and have college majors specializing in risk reduction. They grew up with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and Surgeon General warnings. They are reaping the rewards of living longer today than ever before due to preventive lifestyles (immunizations, exercise, diet, etc.). They are also growing up with a health-care crisis and rising insurance premiums where they cannot afford to go to the hospital or file a claim for damages, and so it is more cost effective to prevent having to do so. Prevention for today's society is simply synonymous with quality of life.
Today's taxpayers demand efficiency and governmental accountability at all levels. Killing and injuring firefighters in abandoned buildings or because seatbelts are not used is no longer acceptable. Firefighters who are injured or worse going the extra yard searching for and saving savable lives, or what they believe are savable lives, will always be heralded as the heroes they are, but today's society knows the difference, especially when their tax bills reflect higher medical costs, insurance premiums and legal fees.
Would you all relax! This does not mean we have to relinquish our rich fire suppression history and pride, or our rich past and the heroes who formed it. There will always be fires to fight and people to be rescued. We are not surrendering who we are, only how we go about doing our job and taking our service to where society needs us to be. This does mean we have to respond promptly, efficiently and most of all safely to emergencies when we are called. This does involve buying smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and rescue ladders, and going door to door if needed to show not only our preventive attitude, but how we fit into society's new definition of quality of life. It does involve conducting blood pressure checks, organizing fundraisers and open houses, attending neighborhood watch meetings, starting CERT or Fire Corps teams, and scouring the "In the Community This Week," section of our local newspapers to find out what's going on outside our bay doors — and then finding ways to get there. It does involve keeping your fingers on the pulse of your community through newspapers, TV news, and community and organization meetings to stay abreast of needs and concerns, and then finding ways to be a part of the solution.
Change is uncomfortable, but nevertheless inevitable. The key to any organization's success is its ability to recognize the need for change and reinvent itself to deliver what the customer wants and values. Imagine where our fire service can be in 50 years if we accept and even embrace the inevitable changes coming our way, instead of fighting them. If we don't adapt, someone else may take our place.
Just ask the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Co.
DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department. He holds associate's and bachelor's degrees in fire science. A 22-year veteran of the emergency services, Byrne is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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