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...
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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.