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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!
If our mission as a service is to protect our citizen's lives and property from fire, then preventing those fires from starting is obviously the truest way to accomplish that. Because once the first flame shows itself, isn't the damage already done to the property that we are sworn to protect and our community put at risk? Even if we put a good stop on that fire, isn't the family already traumatized and the community scarred? Aren't the "brothers and sisters" we claim to love put at risk by going into the preventable fire to pull out people who should have been trained to get out on their own?
We talk prevention first, but do we really believe it? Ask yourself how many training hours your department spends on suppression verses education and prevention. What do your rookies learn about prevention? How many hours do our rookies receive in fire prevention training and when in their rookie schools do they receive it?
Fire Instructor I is often a prerequisite for Fire Officer I; why is that? We must feel that it is important for our officers to know how to instruct, and that is something most fire chiefs feel is extremely important for leaders in leading and developing our service. So why is it that Fire & Life Safety Educator I is not a prerequisite for Fire Officer I? Do we not perceive that training as equally important? Is it not just as important that our officers, our leaders of today and tomorrow, know how to do a basic fire safety presentation and how to set up a basic fire prevention program? That our leaders have the ability to teach and instill in their subordinates the same and develop that prevention-oriented culture for our service's future?
What are your answers to the above questions? If they are what I believe them to be, and what I have seen and heard from many fire departments, is there any question as to why residential fires are higher in 2006 than in 1999, and why over 79% of all fires deaths occur in the home? The victims of these preventable fires are the very young, the very old, the very poor and uneducated -- the very people who need our protection the most. The very people who cannot withstand the insult of any fire, no matter how quickly we respond and suppress it. But we show off their tragedy on our T-shirts and magazine covers and brag about how hot the fire was as we crawled down the hallway.
Our rookies should feel in their bones, and wear proudly on their new T-shirts, "Suppression is the failure of education," and "There is no honor in fighting a preventable fire," and my favorite, "A good fire inspector with a sharp pencil will save more lives in one day than most of us will in a career." They should feel that every time they go out the door, instead of feeling the excitement of rushing to a fire, they should feel the sorrow of failure. Instead of patting each other on the back after a good fire stop, hug each other and ask, "How could we have prevented this?" Along with "Great job" to the awardees of this world, we say "Sorry, brother, we won't let that happen again!"
I challenge you all to take a look at what you are doing in your department to develop a prevention-oriented fire service, from your hiring to promotions. Because if we are able to implement a change in culture and every firefighter truly believes in prevention -- and applies it on each run - think about the impact we could have on our nation's fire problem. If our people do not understand the fire problem, and are not educated on the fire problem, then how can we educate our citizens and effect change? We must believe!
DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, where he has served the past 10 years. A 20-year veteran of the emergency services, he 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.