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Answer: The facts are that the United States and Canada continue to lead the western world in the number of fires, fatalities, injuries and property destruction from the ravages of fire.
Photo by Chuck Snyder
Firefighters in Lewes, DE, operate at an early-morning fire in a boatyard that destroyed three boats and damaged three others. More than a million fires occur annually in the United States, yet few Americans - including many in the fire-rescue service - understand the magnitude of the nation's fire problem.
The recent tragedies in West Warwick, RI, and Hartford, CT, bring home the origin and central reason for the creation of the fire service: to save lives; help the injured; confine and extinguish fire whenever it is out of control; and minimize the damage from fire. This also means preventing fires before they can begin through codes and their enforcement as well as inspections and public education.
I am constantly amazed at the utter ignorance of otherwise intelligent individuals about the nature and scope of the fire problem in North America. Not only are our citizens - customers - ignorant of the problem, but also there are some in the fire service who are not completely up to date with the current state of the problem across the nation and in their communities.
Ask any of the firefighters or officers around you these questions:
- How many fires occur in the United States annually and on any given day?
- How many people in this country are killed in fires annually and how many are injured?
- How much property is destroyed annually by fire in this country?
- What are the three major causes of fire in this country?
One would think it only natural that we in the fire service would know the exact detail of the fire problem facing our communities and our country. Not necessarily. Over the last two decades, the basic mission of the fire service has evolved to include over 20 different services besides fire prevention, inspection and suppression. After 9/11, that list has expanded even more. So with all of the knowledge we must accumulate, it is not difficult to understand how we can lose sight of the facts and figures that govern the origin of the fire service.
More than a million fires still occur annually in the United States.
The point: fires still occur in the most technologically advanced civilization on earth and we have one of the worst problems in the western world. We should all be familiar with the scope of the problem.
Let's consider fire prevention, inspection and public education. The nature of all three is to prevent a fire before it can break out. Much of this part of our jobs is based on selling certain behavior changes to each citizen, business owner and lawmaker so that the environment becomes safer before suppression, the last resort, is summoned. Could you imagine a good salesperson attempting to enlighten a customer about something that is for his or her welfare without the knowledge and understanding of the facts of the problem as a basis for discussion?
Think of it this way. We are not selling another widget or a better car or a great bottle of wine. We are selling something of great value: the continued right to live a safe existence in our communities without fear of loss from fire gone out of control. We are selling the right of a group of people to go to a club to watch a band without fear of being burned alive, if not wedged in an exit they should not have taken.
Here is an example of the way you could begin a discussion of the problem to a group or individual. You can tell the customer that you would like to take a few minutes to discuss the fire problem, both nationally and in your community. You might point out that in 1978 the fire problem was seriously out of control. You can relate that a report called America Burning pointed to the seriousness of the problem and suggested ways to reduce the problem. You could then point out that in spite of the fact that we have greatly reduced the fire problem in this country since that time, we still have the reputation of having the worst record in the western world for destruction by fire. You will probably get a get a blank stare and a response like, "I had no idea."