Prevention First! Do You Truly Believe It?

Since I began my career, I have attended many awards ceremonies where courageous firefighters who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in their quest to save a life have been justly recognized for their feats. Many times, their feats are more...


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Since I began my career, I have attended many awards ceremonies where courageous firefighters who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in their quest to save a life have been justly recognized for their feats. Many times, their feats are more akin to a movie script than reality, and involve everything short of leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

During a recent ceremony, I listened to the story of a lieutenant who arrived on the scene of a building fire at a housing project with smoke pouring out of the second-floor windows and front doors and police officers screaming that two children were still inside. The lieutenant ordered a line stretched from his engine company; however, recognizing the rapidly deteriorating conditions, he dashed into the building ahead of the hoseline, rescued one child, then went back into the burning building to remove the second. Both children were given CPR upon removal, and both survived.

After the ceremony, the lieutenant was greeted by many firefighters who offered him hearty handshakes and congratulations. "Job well done" and "Good job" were most often said. But I couldn't help but notice that this lieutenant not only deserved the congratulations he was receiving, but he also deserved our apologies.

With overall residential fires on the rise, and the previous decline of the national fire death rate now mere fluctuations, and with over 79% of those fire deaths occurring in the home, the fire service needs to get aggressive on fire education; because it is only education that will reach into the residential occupancy and that will result in the needed change of attitudes and behaviors that will ultimately lead to the prevention of fire and the saving of lives. To do this effectively, the first attitudes and behaviors we must change is that of our own, and by doing so, change a fire service culture.

So along with the hearty handshakes and congratulations offered to firefighters who have gone above and beyond, a correct fire prevention culture should also compel us to say, "We are sorry." We should be sorry because the fires in which the awardees risked their lives should never have happened, and those who they rescued should never have been in there. Because if we as a fire service truly believe in our mission of saving lives and property from fire, and truly believe in prevention, and those awardees are truly our brothers that we love, shouldn't this be our attitude? Shouldn't we feel that we let those firefighters down by putting them in such an extreme position?

What are we announcing to each other and to the world about our service? The covers of major fire service periodicals are adorned with photos of firefighters battling major fires, but should we not view such scenes as failures because we failed to prevent those fires in the first place? Does any other profession put their failure on the covers of magazines?

Our fire service culture is filled with T-shirts and posters that have sayings like, "Fighting the beast," "Slaying the dragon" and "We fight what you fear!" Each slogan is garnished with firefighters in what is perceived to be heroic poses against a background of raging flames. Is it any wonder that the U.S. has such a fire problem? Doesn't such paraphernalia promote an unhealthy image of firefighters? If we worship and promote fire in such a way, what message are we relaying to the public? How should they respect fire when we are promoting it like a badge of honor?

Do we not feel in the depths of our soul that our ethos, that our mission, is to protect life and property from the ravages of fire and understand what that truly means? Speaking as a culture, we obviously do not and we are missing the truest purpose of our profession. After all, the fire on the front cover of that magazine has just claimed someone's home or business!

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