Is Prevention A Foreign Language?

Just as there are many languages on Planet Earth, and just as different regions of the North American continent have different accents and dialects, the fire service also possesses many different dialects and languages.

There is administrative-ese, an often-misunderstood language that speaks of budgets and votes. There is the language of emergency operations, which talks of "The Big One," and how to lessen the damage and injury this will bring. There is another language spoken by emergency planners, who describe cataclysmic events beyond our comprehension. And finally, there is the language of prevention.

Prevention is the common thread that should connect all disciplines. After all, what administrator longs to cope with a fiscal crisis? What emergency responder looks forward to a fatality? And is there an emergency planner alive who eagerly awaits that cataclysmic event? If it were within their power, representatives from each discipline would undoubtedly choose to prevent the very things that warrant their existence. Yet, the reality they bring to the fire service seems quite contrary.

The origins of prevention are simple enough. Prevention is derived from basic human compassion. It began on the day someone witnessed an emergency of some kind and decided that certain forms of pain and suffering endured by human beings were unnecessary and unacceptable. It grew as an understanding of human behavior developed. So it only seems natural that it should be reflected in the work of the fire service, a service that is all about recognizing emergencies people suffer.

When the mission of the fire service is examined closely, it seems to have "prevention" written all over it. The generally accepted goal offered by the typical fire agency is to "save lives and protect property." Is this mission really accomplished by responding to fires and medical emergencies after they have begun? In reality, the fire service is focused more on mitigation than prevention, choosing to arrive after damage, injury, and/or death have occurred and keeping it from getting worse. This is, of course, important since everything cannot be prevented. But how much can be prevented?

Prevention is probably most affected by the organizational or administrative philosophy of an organization. In other words, it starts at the top. This is evidenced by the multitude of prevention programs that fail to survive when the person creating it or championing it leaves, only to find the program disappear because it was never embraced by the organization.

A prominent fire chief was sharing his customer service philosophy at a public education conference one day and offered an interesting statement. He said that he didn't want to prevent all fires, because responding to fires was the best way to keep morale in his department high. One wonders which fires he'd choose to prevent and which ones were an acceptable part of his department's mission. It also makes one wonder if he had the courage to include that in his departments' mission statement.

Because prevention is a different language, or at least a dialect of the fire service, its capabilities can be misunderstood. Some will say that prevention cannot be measured, because you can't measure a life that wasn't lost. The language barrier looms large here. Any fire department that has kept track of fire losses, injuries and deaths has a history against which to measure future results. This is called "trending." The thing about trends, however, is that they take time to develop - usually a matter of years. This is a concept that doesn't translate well from prevention language to the other dialects in the fire service. In the emergency response world, "long-term" is an incident that lasts several hours. And, while emergency planners speak of decades and 100-year recurrences, their day-to-day challenges can typically be resolved in a much-shorter time frame.

Prevention is, in fact, the common denominator in the fire service. If everyone considers the benefits to be gained from speaking and understanding the same language - including the language of prevention - it would be possible to create a more supportive environment for prevention programs. This, in turn, would allow prevention a better opportunity to serve the organization and the community. In the final analysis, all the fire service would benefit. This will ultimately make the community a safer place for the citizens the fire department strives to serves. Isn't that what the fire service is all about?


Don Porth began working in the fire service in 1980 as a volunteer and student firefighter. Hired to the Salem, OR, Fire Department in 1983, he spent one year there before taking a job with Portland, OR, Fire & Rescue in 1984. Don was promoted into the Prevention Division in 1990 and assigned to Public Education. Along with managing the youth firesetting intervention program for almost eight years, he also supervised the unit for eight years.

Currently, Don oversees the Safety Learning Center & Fire Museum for PF&R. In his spare time, Don has served as President of SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs since 1996. This is a position that Don feels has served an important purpose nationally and continues to be a positive influence to the youth firesetting field. Don has been married since 1984 and has two sons that fill his family time.

About SOS FIRES: Youth Intervention Programs is a non-profit organization committed to advocacy and intervention of youth firesetting behaviors. SOS FIRES provides consulting, training, research, and other support services across North America. For more information, visit the SOS FIRES website at www.sosfires.com.

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