David vs. Goliath: Attacking the U.S. Fire Problem

One of the great battles in history involved the young David and the giant Philistine soldier Goliath. The facts of the battle are simple. A young lad armed with a slingshot device and five stones took on the enemy's fiercest warrior. After whacking the giant on the head and stunning him with a well-aimed shot, David went up, drew the giant's sword and cut off his head.

Let me now share the story of a modern day Fire Service David that is planning on challenging the Goliath, which we all know as the American Fire Service. One of my roles in life is serving as the Vice President of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers. To say that we are a small organization is to give us too much credit.

However, a number of us have worked hard to make our way in the world and have had an impact of varying degrees on the fire service. Perhaps you have heard of us. My friend Greg Cade, our next U.S. Fire Administrator, my buddy Dr. Cortez Lawrence, and I are all members in good standing of this tiny organization. We all applied for admission and had our education credentials reviewed for membership in the Institution of Fire Engineers, a worldwide organization with chapters in countries around the world. We share their love and respect for knowledge, education, and professional excellence.

Our organization also has a member who is a real sparkplug when it comes to fire prevention and life safety matters. I have been promising this buddy that I would write one of my weekly commentaries which would enlighten you all about a plan that he has for addressing the fire problems in the United States.

In one of my commentaries back in 2006, I wrote about the devil being in the details of any human undertaking. I believe those thoughts remain quite valid indeed. Goals are great things, but achieving them can be a real bear of a task. Ozzie Mirkhah of the Las Vegas Fire Department agrees with me. He thinks that our efforts to lower firefighter deaths are too splintered. He thinks that there are too many simultaneous agendas being advanced by people interested in the same issues. He thinks we are not looking at the big picture.

His suggestion is that we need to move all of our efforts to a higher plane. He believes that we need to bring all of the disparate organizations of the fire service together into a common effort to attack all fire death-related issues, civilian and fire service, along a common front. He believes the effort is long overdue.

He is not wrong. The efforts to attack the problem of fire on the national level date back to 1947, the year of my birth. I have had the privilege of reviewing the report of the Proceedings of the President's Conference on Fire Prevention, which was held on May 6-8, 1947. The effort has continued through the years.

However, Ozzie and I are not pleased with the overall impact of what has been attempted over the decades. In spite of the efforts over the past six decades, our great nation ranks far down on the list of fire safety among the nations of the world.

Many of you are aware of the Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, which we all now know as America Burning, issued in 1973. It was this report that led to the formation of the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy. I do not want to say that I have been studying this topic for a long time, but I can recall when the fire administration was a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

I can recall attending the meetings in Washington, DC where moving the fire administration to a new agency to be known as the Federal Emergency Management Agency was discussed. I can also recall our debates over whether the infant National Fire Academy should be based at the Margery Webster College Campus or at the Mt. St. Joseph's location where it now does its great works. By jolly, this discussion is making me feel ancient.

Along the way I have watched the fortunes of the fire service ebb and flow in the backwash of the political battles in our nation's capitol. We have been going in circles for a great part of my career. Thank the Lord that we now have a permanent Superintendent at the National Fire Academy. What I find really interesting is that the same issues we were batting about in the 1970's were actually discussed many years before that. They date back to 1947 and earlier.

Guess what gang, we are still waiting for some of these recommendations to be acted upon and we are now 60 years downstream from the original 1947 study of the fire problem in America. We need to do something if we are to get a handle on the fire problem in America.

There are far too many players at work in our field all attempting to grab the oars of the boat and row it in a direction that favors their organization and the positions they feel we all should be taking. But what has really happened in the years since President Truman addressed the conference nearly 60 years ago?

One of the participants at that watershed event spoke of the importance of understanding the importance of the "three "E's" of Education, Enforcement, and Engineering" (Presidential Conference, 1947, p. 10). These fine folks also spoke of the importance of better building codes, better inspections, and a greater enforcement of fire safety regulations. I would imagine that it would not surprise you to learn that these same thoughts and phrases were given great space in the 1973 America Burning report. Hell, these issues were taught to me in my basic courses in the 1960's and the 1970's.

It is not my wish for you to think that little of substance has been accomplished in the intervening years. We have done better on a number of accounts. There has been an increased emphasis on public fire safety education. Many more inspections are being conducted today and we are doing a better job of recording our fire record. However, the whole effort is on the whole a disjointed undertaking. The combat arena gets the bright lights and the prevention folks are left looking in the side window.

Some places do nothing about fire safety education. Other places look at inspections as a pain in the butt that takes time away from the supposed primary job of the fire service: going to blazes. Let me tell you an open secret. We just are not going to as many fires as we once did.

Perhaps this has something to do with the efforts undertaken in the world of fire prevention, but perhaps it is also just an incredible case of luck. I have been in this business over 40 years and have seen as much good done by luck as by human efforts. Now is the time to do something to bring order from the seemingly fragmented efforts of our nation to combat uncontrolled fire in all of its many iterations.

Let me fess up here for a moment. I believe that I have been part of the problem. Many times I have gone for the bright lights and glory of fire suppression. I craved the action and adventure which was available to a young lad hanging on the back of a Mack pumper in Newark's Central Ward.

There were times when I moved into the world of fire prevention. I spent a period of time in the Fire Prevention Division in the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department as the Acting Chief Fire Inspector. It seemed to me that we had a force of inspectors and plan review specialists which was way too small to properly do the job in a city of Newark's size and complexity.

There was always a hue and cry to cut the fire prevention budget in order to increase the staff on the suppression units. We battled to keep going with the limited forces allotted to us. There were successes and there were failures.

I did my job, but I yearned to be back in the firehouse responding to the many fires which plagued Newark back in the 1970's and early 1980's. Over time I came to see the error of my ways. However, I am fairly certain that my attitude was more the norm than not. Maybe it still is the norm?

Much of the basis for my change of heart came from the lessons which I learned about fire prevention during the ten years that I spent as the Fire Marshal for the New Jersey Army National Guard. My associates in the engineering section and I put together a program that allowed for our armories to be inspected on a regular basis.

We also created a special program to install automatic sprinkler suppression systems during the renovation process which took place during the 1980's. Even the locations that were on wells had the appropriate automatic fire suppression installed. Our efforts in those days left a legacy of protection in our military armories that exists to this very day.

Let me get back to the central thesis of this message to you. We need to create a higher level focus on the problem of fire in America. Ozzie suggested that we had to do something to bring all of the players to the table to address the total problem of fire in America.

I agree with him. As a man who has the benefit of a long-term perspective, I sometimes think that we have been steaming mightily in circles. At other times I see us as a whole flock of Don Quixote's roaming far and wide across the nation tilting at the latest round of politically-correct windmills; but never reaching the goal of true victory.

Ozzie is a man truly possessed when it comes to the issues of fire deaths and injuries. Although his main thrust is in the areas of proper construction, code compliance and inspections, and life safety, he sees all of our fire loss, and death and injury problems as having a common basis. He has long believed that there can be a common solution. However, he sees the need to create a new overall thrust that encompasses all of the players in the world of fire and life safety.

Last year at the Annual Meeting of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers held at the Fire Rescue International Conference in Dallas, Ozzie delivered a passionate message regarding the need to shake up the way America looks at the fire problem. As an association, we have decided to adopt Ozzie's cause as our own.

During my four decades in the fire service I have seen the major organizations come together. As a matter of fact I once was privileged to attend the meeting of the old Joint Council of National Fire Service Organizations as a representative of one of the member organizations. I did this for nearly five years. Perhaps it was just the naiveté of my youth, but it seemed like we were all on the same page back in those days. Then for whatever the reason, the organizations began to drift apart.

Let me tell you what helped to bring our organizations together again my friends. I can recall attending the Fire Service Summit Meetings in Virginia when I was the First Vice President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Enlightened leaders like Dennis Compton of Arizona, and Steve Austin of Delaware, among others, fought to bring us all together in a quest for federal funding of the fire service. We backed Congressman Bill Pascrell of New Jersey in his efforts to get the FIRE Act passed. We were successful.

We have also come together on the issue of line of duty deaths in the fire service. The Sixteen Initiatives of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation now serve as a guiding light, a beacon, pointing us in the right direction. Our goal is to lower the annual death rate of firefighters. This is a truly noble endeavor. But Ozzie and I think that more can be done.

If we could come to a higher plane and attack the root cause of fire destruction in our nation many great things might come to pass. If there were fewer fires then it is possible that there would be fewer deaths of all types, both civilian and fire service. The dollars lost would be lessoned and the impact upon our economy reduced.

This is the mission that the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers has chosen to accept. We now have to emulate the lesson of that old children's story which speaks about the little engine that could. Our Branch is that little engine. We have a fairly daunting task in front of us, but we have chosen to attack the problem head on. To that end, we are applying for a grant from the federal government to assist us in creating this national-level summit.

It is our intention to think big. It is our intention to once again show that the many parts of our fire service can accomplish more by coming together in a common forum. I challenge you to join us in our efforts. I challenge you to adopt what I have come to know as the START approach to the living of life.

  • Stop making excuses
  • Take the initiative
  • Act in faith that our mission is noble
  • Reassess and reevaluate our efforts as we move toward our chosen goals and objectives
  • Trust in God and in the rightness of our mission.

In this way we can come together and then hopefully move forward to make America a safer place to live. I have often heard it said that the fire service is best described as a work in progress. If this is truly the case, then I would urge you to step forward, join with us, and help us to progress in our efforts. Please join with the David, which is IFE to attack the Goliath-sized fire problem in our nation.

Click here to view Ozzie Mirkhah's monthly column on Firehouse.com.

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