Looking Ahead To The New Millennium

There's no doubt that the fire-rescue service will see amazing technical advances in the first 25 years of the new millennium, but it's more difficult to forecast what the political issues and problems will be in 2025. Everyone has an opinion on how they would like things to be, but when it comes to "fire politics," most of us can't predict what will happen next month.

One way of approaching this subject is to look back at how far we've come in the last 25 years and use that as a reference point to review the victories and defeats, some lessons learned, and size-up the challenges that confront us as we enter the 21st century.

The fire service has come a long way and made considerable progress on the political front since I started writing this column in 1976. The Congressional Fire Services Caucus has made it possible to pass legislation that once would have been impossible. Fire organizations have learned how to disagree on some issues, but effectively work together on those where they find common ground. Firefighters as a group have become more politically active and, at times, their views have had an impact.

But we still have a long way to go and there are some very tough problems to be solved, especially at the local level. The biggest obstacles to overcome may be complacency, apathy and a reluctance to seek public support and fight back when elected officials pursue policies that endanger the level of fire protection, or special interests thwart efforts to strengthen the fire codes.

Ironically, complacency has become a threat because there has been success in reducing the nation's fire death toll. It began with "America Burning," the 1973 report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. For the first time, the loss of life and property in fires was seen as a national problem that required help from the federal government.

This led to the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy. While the USFA has fallen far short of our hopes and expectations, it has had some successful programs - most notably the nationwide campaign to mandate the use of smoke detectors in every building. There's no doubt that this has been a major factor in reducing the number of lives lost in fires from 6,000 a year in the 1970s to 4,000 in the 1990s.

But 4,000 people being killed every year is a horrendous and unacceptable figure. There still are states and local jurisdictions that do not require smoke detectors in homes - which is where most people die in fires. To save lives on a massive scale, more emphasis has to be placed on fire prevention, with more resources and personnel involved in inspections and enforcement of the life safety codes. And, we still need stronger codes. At the top of my "wish list" for the next century is the hope that every high-rise and high-risk building - including schools, nursing homes, multi-family apartment houses and private homes, hotels, night clubs, factories and offices - will be protected by sprinklers. If that ever happens, this country's fire death toll will become insignificant.

It finally could happen in the coming century, though it may not be as soon as 2025. But it won't happen until the fire service gains the public support and political strength that are needed to counter the political power of developers, building owners and operators, who use their clout to defeat efforts to strengthen and enforce the fire codes. It has been known for more than 100 years that a sprinkler is the most effective device to prevent multi-death fires, but at the end of the 20th century - with its long list of tragic and preventable fire disasters - it's still extremely difficult to pass sprinkler laws and almost impossible to pass one without a deadly grandfather clause that exempts existing buildings.

Complacency brought on by the reduced fire death toll has added to public apathy about the danger of fire. No one outside the fire service seems to know or care about the on-going fiscal crisis that struck so many fire departments in the last 20 years. The "temporary" budget cuts of the 1980s and 1990s have become permanent and taken their toll on morale and manpower. With a booming economy and a surplus of tax money rolling in, firefighter positions that were taken away when elected officials slashed the budgets are not being restored. Instead, the politicians are promising tax cuts while fire companies remain dangerously under-staffed and departments lack the personnel to carry out the aggressive fire prevention programs that save lives.

There is also a new and insidious attitude creeping up inside the fire-rescue service. I've heard people who should know better say: "We don't need as many firefighters on engines and ladder trucks because we don't respond to as many fires and a majority of our responses are now emergency medical calls." This kind of thinking is as dangerous as it is foolish. A majority of fire departments are now first responders and performing the critical role they have taken on as EMS providers. But we're still in the business of fighting fires and it still requires firefighters to do the job. Even if three out of five runs are EMS responses, the minimum staffing on engine and truck companies should be four firefighters in the typical urban or suburban district - and there are many where the fire load and risk call for a minimum of five.

In recent months, the news media have reported the reduced fire death toll and there has been a rash of television programs glorifying firefighters for their bravery and skill. It's nice and makes everyone feel good, but it doesn't help solve any problems. What's really needed are stories that point out the need for stronger codes and more tax money to maintain the proper staffing of fire companies.

Fire departments and hospital emergency rooms have become the main dispensers of medical care to the poor and there is every reason to believe this trend will continue into the 21st century. Firefighters have assumed that responsibility, along with their mission of saving lives and property in fires. The trend that has to be reversed is the illogical idea that they can continue to do more with less. But if complacency and public apathy are not overcome, the system will break down and the problems facing the fire-rescue service will be the same or worse in 2025 than they are in 1999.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.