Go Navy!

The fire service can learn from the Navy's experience in culture and accountability.


On June 18, IAFF's General President, Harold Schaitberger released a statement for the one year anniversary of the Charleston fire and it stated "you can't find any good in the tragic deaths of the nine courageous men who died last year. The scope of the tragedy did raise awareness in Charleston and in fire departments across North America about the catastrophic consequences that can result when current fire safety, staffing, command and operational methods and practices are not followed... If there is a positive that can come out of this terrible tragedy, it is this: The legacy of the Charleston Nine will be a safer, better equipped, better trained, properly staffed and fully updated fire department. I know this union is committed to that goal."

I agree with him with all my heart. We in the fire service owe it to our fallen brothers in Charleston, to make sure such tragedies do not happen in the future. I believe that because of the great work that Gordon Routley and his team did in preparing the Charleston reports, most fire service members are aware of the tactical fire suppression errors that might have occurred in that incident. But, the reports also clearly point out that enforcement of fire prevention regulations and absence of the fire sprinkler systems directly contributed to the magnitude of this catastrophe. And most in the fire service still have not gotten that message and continue to ignore fire prevention enforcement.

And that is why Schaitberger's statement "catastrophic consequences that can result when current fire safety, staffing, command and operational methods and practices are not followed" is so important. It reflects and relays to the IAFF membership the important message, that fire safety and prevention is an integral part of any efforts to protect the firefighters and preventing future catastrophes.

I believe that firefighters must fully embrace fire prevention as an essential part of their duties, in not only protecting their communities, but also in providing for their own safety, and insuring that everyone goes home to their families at the end of their shifts.

That is a major cultural shift from today's reality where fire prevention is viewed by most in the fire service as a low priority, unglamorous support task, performed while on light duty, or as a temporary stepping stone assignment in their promotional process. We in the fire service need to change our perspective of fire prevention and evolve our culture to better embrace it. Our own Navy did it, and we can and must learn from them.

Now talking about international perspectives and Navy, I must admit that because of all his extensive research in both those subjects, no one is more qualified and internationally better recognized as an authority, than my good friend Philip Schaenman with Tridata Division of Systems Planning Corp. Up to this point I wrote about the example of accountability in the Navy, but Phil has performed numerous research projects for the Navy on their fire prevention program and has written many reports on the subject. The following excerpt paragraphs from his March 2006 article in the Fire Chief magazine titled "First Class" is a mere glimpse, yet provides valuable insight into Navy's progressive views and importance of their fire prevention program.

"The Navy protects 1 million people worldwide on its installations, and it has about 1.7 fires per 1,000 population versus 5.3 fires per 1,000 in the general population. In other words, civilians have triple the Navy's rate of fires. The Navy also has had no fire fatalities for several years, versus 13 per million in the civilian sector. Injuries are low, as well. (In his peer review comment to my article, Schaenman says that as of August 2008, more recent Navy data on population protected suggests that the civilian rate may be "only" double the Navy rate, not triple.!)

In terms of dollar losses, Navy losses per fire are much lower than civilian losses for both residential and non-residential structure fires. While dollar loss estimates have many problems, we reviewed records of all fires over $100,000 in the Navy and instances where the Navy fire service believed it had averted larger losses. All evidence points to the low losses in the Navy being fact...

The excellent Navy fire record is the result of a variety of factors, some cultural. Because ship and aircraft fires can be disastrous to sailors, all Navy personnel are trained in firefighting and the dangers that may occur from fires at sea and on aircraft. This training carries over to onshore facilities and housing. The disciplined environment of military life contributes to awareness and carefulness, but safety doesn't just happen. It requires nurturing of safety attitudes, providing prevention information and developing skills to use when fire occurs.