Honoring the Past, Not Worshiping it Will Move Our Service Forward

During a recent conversation with one of our fire service icons, John Hoglund from the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute (MFRI), he told us a story where he went to a local fire station during one of his travels. The purpose of his visit was to honor the department's former chief who was a legend in the fire service. The chief was a well known author, speaker and a pioneer in hydraulics for the fire service.

The legendary fire chief passed away a number of years ago, but Mr. Hoglund felt the need to stop by headquarters to pay homage to this legend and his close friend. Upon arrival, Mr. Hoglund was greeted by a younger firefighter who seemed a bit put out by "just another visitor" mindset.

Mr. Hoglund explained the purpose of his visit and how he was there to honor one of the great pioneers of our industry and the department's former chief. The firefighter's response was "Chief who? Never heard of him." In fact none of the firefighters knew of the former chief who made such an impact on our service. Is our service forgetting our past? Does the next generation of fire service personnel understand our past and those who have made such an impact or our service? Have they learned from them and their experiences?

We must not forget our past, nor how it led us to where we are today--especially in our fire prevention efforts. We need to honor and study our past to move forward.

As we examine our fire prevention efforts at a national level, we can compare it to our fire department standard operating procedures (SOPs). If you take a moment and thumb through the SOPs you can assign a person's name to each SOP or an event that occurred. "The reason we have this SOP for backing up is that Firefighter XYZ was always backing into vehicles." There simply aren't a lot of proactive rules or SOP's--most of them exist because something happened and the rule or SOP was developed to try to prevent it from happening again.

This holds true for our fire prevention efforts as well. The reason we have the Life Safety Code is the result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. The driving force of code changes are events that occur. Many times we must repeat the event before we make changes, similar to how we develop our SOP's.

We must not just look at our past tragic historic events if we want to move our fire prevention efforts forward. We need to study the past efforts of others and build on the progress they made. Many of our past professionals worked hard to get us where we are today.

We applaud the present efforts of the Vision 20/20 steering committee chaired by Jim Crawford. The committee is setting the example of not forgetting the past efforts of our predecessors. President's Truman Report on Fire Prevention in 1947, America Burning report of 1973 and Solutions 2000 are all essential elements of our past the committee has embraced and studied as they move our national fire prevention efforts to the forefront of our service. This project is using the past work of others to commit national stakeholders to a strategic plan for fire prevention to enable the fire service to move our fire prevention service to a level of importance equal to our suppression service.

Much work is needed to ensure this project continues with realistic action items and a mechanism to keep this project alive. We could not even be at this point if we did not honor the past efforts of others. As we reflect on our past fire prevention accomplishments we can identify many areas of fire prevention successes throughout our country.

We now have the opportunity in September to honor these efforts by finally addressing what has been documented as our best means to finally reduce residential fire fatalities. The time has come for the fire service to honor our past and approve a nationally recognized building code requiring residential sprinklers.

Many fire departments and communities do not embrace a need for residential sprinklers or even the need for fire prevention programs. Fire prevention and residential sprinklers not only positively impact our community, they impact firefighter safety.

Past fire service beliefs and norms of only having a fire prevention division responsible for fire prevention efforts is one prime example. We need to move forward to the future where entire fire departments are responsible and advocates for prevention, not just one division. We still can (and should) honor the efforts of those before us who performed their duties which may not have included fire prevention. In fact, their duties may not have included EMS, hazmat or terrorism response either!

Our service is built upon our many traditions. We are fortunate to be part of a profession with such a great heritage and many outstanding professionals. Our past is great but remember these words from Chief Dennis Compton during the IFSTA 2008 Validation Conference:"We must honor the past but not worship it. If we worship the past we cannot change it. We don't tend to change what we worship."

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BRETT LACEY, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Colorado Springs, CO, Fire Department and a professional engineer. He has over 27 years in the fire service and has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA committee for Inspection practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal's Association Code Committee. PAUL VALENTINE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Marshal for the Mount Prospect, IL, Fire Department and formerly served as their fire protection engineer. He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fire Protection and Safety Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State University and a Master of Science Degree in Management and Organizational Behavior from Benedictine University and is a graduate from the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. Brett and Paul co-authored Fire Prevention Applications, published by Fire Protection Publications. They also presented a webcast titled Fire Prevention Applications on Firehouse TrainingLIVE. To read their complete biographies and view their archived articles, click here. You can reach Paul by e-mail at: paulvalentine@wowway.com.