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

Let me 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.

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.