What Do We Have to Lose?

The perfect applicability of President Truman's statement to our current conditions clearly reveals the fact that we are still struggling with the same problems and trying to overcome the same obstacles, and that we are not much further along as we...

A new conference on solving the American fire problem ultimately would lead us to the same general conclusion as the 1947 conference: We need to focus more on fire prevention and utilizing all available technologies to address the fire problem. Sure, we in the fire protection field might believe that we know the answers already, but the important point is obtaining the support of all stakeholders and getting their buy-in and commitments. That is the key, because full-scale commitment would drive a campaign that would hopefully result in better funding and implementation mechanisms for the recommendations. What do we have to lose by focusing on finding better solutions to address the fire problem? Why shouldn't we have a national conference, then?

One of the most important outcomes of a national conference could either be the next stage in the evolution of the USFA and expansion of its role, or the establishment of a new federal agency, similar to the EPA, responsible for reducing our total national fire cost. Accountability for reducing our total national fire cost could be the best outcome of this national conference.

Taking corrective measures to avoid financial loss is an everyday event in the private sector but it is rather uncommon in the government-especially at the federal level. General Motors' drastic steps to correct its $2.2 billion losses in the first quarters of 2005 made national news. But even with a yearly toll of 4,000 deaths and $14.5 billion in property losses from fire, the national consciousness is not roused to waken, much less act. Our fire statistics seem to be lost among many other numbers, but it is our duty to shed light on them and bring them up to the attention of the national policymakers. I truly believe that if our representatives on Capitol Hill were aware of the real magnitude of our country's fire cost year after year, they would pay a lot closer attention to address the fire problem in our country.

It's an accountability issue. The CEO of a corporation is held accountable by stockholders for the bottom line profitability and economic well being of the company-today and in the future. Who is held accountable for our national fire losses? Who are our "stockholders"? Who is accountable for taking corrective measures and changing course to avoid having such huge national annual costs every year? How are our performance levels measured?

Year in and year out, there are fires and we respond and put them out, without any accountability for the past or for future fire fatalities and fire costs. But that accountability is our duty; we have a patriotic duty to America's physical and economic well-being. A national conference on reducing our fire costs will identify shortcomings, yield critical recommendations to address the problems, and establish a system for bringing accountability into the equation. Without a system and accountability, nothing will change.

Since General Motors' financial troubles and its massive layoffs might seem as a rather unpleasant example from the labor's view, let me clear up a very important point here from the fire service perspective: I believe that a few decades back, our general view in the fire service might have been that reducing fire losses meant fewer fires, thus layoffs for career firefighters. And that could have been the reason for our reluctance in accepting fire prevention as a priority for the fire service. But, our current work loads attest to the fallacy of that view. These days, only 20 percent our call volumes are fire/rescue-related and the other roughly 80 percent of our calls are EMS related, so that archaic belief could not possibly be true anymore-and especially so now with terrorism response on our plates.

There is no doubt that many career departments are running shorthanded and below establishing staffing standards. Insufficient staffing reduces effectiveness (and worse) and directly impacts our ability to reduce and control our fatalities and property losses from fires. So reversing the American fire losses could only mean additional resources and personnel for the fire service.

Having to reduce the national fire cost could make the municipalities more accountable to perform their obligations to protect their communities from the effects of fires. That could mean that municipal decisions in downsizing and reducing staff levels or shutting down fire stations etc. would be a lot more difficult to explain to the taxpayers, especially if the jurisdiction and the state stand to lose federal grants for noncompliance with the fire loss reduction regulations. Keeping local jurisdictions responsible for compliance could only translate to more fire suppression resources and firefighters for the community, as was identified in NFPA's "U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2003." It would be better for everyone-management, labor, and the citizens.