I have attended more than a couple of fire service classes over the past few years, and I also have a stack of firefighting trade periodicals sitting on my desk that I read frequently. In each, I see the same theme being emphasized over and over again — firefighter safety. This I applaud...
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I have been a proponent of the need to train our public to prevent and survive fires the same way we train our firefighters to respond and suppress them, because the environment both find themselves in when inside a fire is exactly the same. Our very own International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) instructor manual, seventh edition — the manual we use to learn how to train firefighters — states on page 144 in the Principles of Learning chapter, "Instructors encourage the development of attitudes and values in subtle and indirect ways," and the attitude instilled in the student are the same values that are demonstrated by instructors.
So if NFPA Firefighter I is the foundation upon which our newest firefighters build, and if what our instructor manual says is true, then what attitudes and values are we giving our recruits by downplaying the importance of prevention? Isn't the strongest building only as good as its foundation? What are we saying as a profession whose sole purpose is to protect lives and property from fire when we no longer require our newest members to learn anything about preventing deadly fires from starting?
Let's take this even a step further. According to the NFPA 2007 Fire Department Profile, 73% of the firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers. I am willing to bet due to time and cost restraints caused by an overworked, overstressed and underpaid pool of volunteers who have little time to donate, most will go only as far as Firefighter I. Conceivably, 73% of the firefighters protecting our citizens from fire in this country may not learn prevention as part of their training, and the other 27% will get it at a later date.
This is our national professional standard! What are we saying? This is a standard within a profession that claims to dedicate itself to protecting lives and property from fire, but in a nation that leads the industrialized world in fire deaths every year. A nation that kills more citizens in fire every year than in four years of combat in Iraq, and for common and predictable — and thus preventable — reasons. These are the same fires that cause our firefighters to be killed or injured while responding to them and fighting them. What message are we portraying as a profession? What are we saying about the basics of our job? Would any other successful organization operate this way? Most successful organizations instill in their new employees the values of the organizations from the very start, along with what is expected of each employee to succeed and to make the organizations successful.
Imagine that during their initial training, every one of our new, impressionable firefighters received a strong prevention foundation. What would the result be if we taught and wrote about prevention with the same frequency, and with the same intensity, as we do about fireground survival skills? How many civilian contacts do our firefighters make across the nation every day while performing their duties? Multiply that by the number of people they know in their personal lives. It is like the pebble-in-the-pond analogy; the ripples spread out until they come ashore.
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), whose foundation rests in the America Burning report, offers free fire prevention materials to any fire department in the United States. From coloring books to videos, this material is there for the asking and costs nothing, yet the USFA may be forced to scale back or even discontinue this program because of the lack of requests from fire departments for these prevention materials.
Will we prevent all fires? Will we prevent all fire deaths? The answer obviously is no. Will we prevent all firefighter deaths? That answer is probably no as well, but we continue to try because even if we can save a single life of one of our own, then it is worth all the effort. Just like those families who visit the station, such differences can be for our own firefighters by simply reminding them to buckle up, mask up, not to freelance and to eat healthy. This is done by officers who are educated on the causes of firefighter deaths. Why do we not have the same attitude toward our citizens? Aren't they the ones we are supposed to be protecting?
NFPA Firefighter I is a consensus standard and it is not formed by just one person, but by a group of fire service professionals. In 2012, NFPA 1001 is up for revision. I challenge you all to let your voices be heard and not only get prevention back into NFPA Firefighter I, but in the front of the manuals as well. By doing this, we as a profession of people dedicated to protecting life and property from fire can let it be known that we not only preach prevention first, but we practice it as well; and by doing so, instill in our newest members that their first job is to prevent fires before suppressing them.