Let’s Stop Being Our Own Worst Enemies

There are times when it seems as if the fire-rescue service is its own worst enemy. Just when you think things are going well and progress is being made, someone will say or do something that draws media attention and presents a negative image or distorts an issue in a way that leaves the public wondering what they're putting in the firehouse food.

It's not easy to do, for firefighters are held in high esteem by the public. The Pew Research Center for People and The Press conducted a nationwide poll last year in which it asked people what groups or institutions they trusted. Amazingly, 78% replied that they had "a lot" of trust in their local fire department. In contrast, only 46% expressed similar confidence in their police department and at the bottom of ladder were local television news (24%), newspapers (22%), city government (14%) and the federal government (6%). No other group came close to firefighters on the trust scale and the only category that did better was their own family.

This "trust factor" has to be even higher since the terrorist attacks of last September. The terrible sacrifice made by the Fire Department of New York has reflected on firefighters everywhere and I'm sure that all of you have experienced an outpouring of public admiration in your own area. And, the truth is that you've earned it because of the way you've always done your job.

That's why we all cringe when something goes wrong or someone says something that casts the fire service in a bad light. It takes many forms - an ambulance that can't find the right address; a fire company that refuses to respond because of a jurisdictional dispute; a firefighter being arrested for setting fires; mean-spirited squabbles between the career and volunteer branches over petty issues; a chief officer, union official or blue-shirt firefighter who says something truly dumb to a newspaper or television reporter; improper behavior in the firehouse that becomes public knowledge, etc.

It's a long list and many of you know exactly what I mean. Fortunately, these incidents don't happen very often, but because they are rare and not the norm, they are newsworthy and always draw media attention. When it happens, you have to act quickly to determine the facts and take immediate and decisive action to correct the problem. That's the only way you can restore public confidence and protect your department's hard-earned reputation. Don't delay, don't waste time and energy blaming the media, and don't try to cover up; anything that looks or sounds like a cover-up will cause more problems than the original misdeed.

We also become the victims of myths that we help to perpetuate. One of the most damaging is the idea that firefighters no longer fight fires and have become nothing more than dispensers of medical care who occasionally respond to a fire. This distorted view has been used by elected officials to justify budget cuts that have left so many departments with under-staffed companies. The time is long overdue to put an end to a myth that has caused nothing but trouble.

It is true that fire departments that have gone to the first responder system now respond to more non-fire calls, but the heavy EMS response is in addition to the normal load of fire alarms. In my department, about 65% of the runs are accidents or emergency medical, hazmat and other non-fire incidents, but our firefighters still respond to a steady stream of fire alarms and catch their share of fires. The radio has been blaring as I write this column and at this moment a dozen or so companies are on the scene of a serious hazmat incident and a working house fire; four engines, and two trucks are picking up from a room-and-contents high-rise fire, while others are out on the street responding to the usual rush-hour deluge of accidents and EMS calls. They've also had a third and a second alarm in the past 12 hours. Who says firefighters don't fight fires?

The myth takes over when firefighters complain that they "don't go to fires like they did in the good old days" and a false picture is presented when today's statistics are compared with 25 or 30 years ago. Trust me, the so-called "good old days" weren't that good and it is misleading to compare statistics. America truly was burning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a wave of fires caused by arson and urban decay swept the nation's large and small cities. It was a unique period, unlike any other the fire service has ever faced.

Even the suburbs and small towns were not spared. At the time, I was a volunteer on a busy suburban department that had its own mini-version of the South Bronx and there were weeks when we never stopped running, with a lot of working fires and frequent all-night stands. We didn't respond to EMS calls; it was all heavy fire duty that became a dangerous form of unplanned and uncontrolled "urban renewal." No one ever complained about not going to fires and we joked among ourselves that we were "building parking lots."

But it was no joke and it took a heavy toll in civilian and firefighter deaths and injuries. Vast areas of many cities looked like war zones and some still bear the scars. In the years since, stronger codes, aggressive fire prevention programs, and the widespread use of the smoke detectors and sprinklers have reduced the nation's fire losses. Despite that progress, the United States still suffers a horrifying loss of life and property in fires and an average of 100 firefighters still die in the line of duty every year. We continue to have one of the worst records of any country in the world.

It doesn't matter how many EMS runs and other non-fire calls a fire department responds to, it still needs firefighters to fight fires. That requires a minimum of four on a career department's engine and truck companies and there are districts that carry a heavy fire load where there should be five on each apparatus as it pulls out of the firehouse. As for volunteer and combination departments, regardless of how they get there, they have to put similar numbers on the scene as fast as possible. The percentage of fires you respond to may be lower, but fire fighting still is "labor intensive," whether it's in a big city or small town, and that fact-of-life hasn't changed in more than 100 years.

So quit complaining about not going to enough fires. Every time you do, you're providing ammunition for the people who want to save money by getting rid of firefighters.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, retired as political director for ABC News in Washington and served almost 40 years as a volunteer firefighter. He is a director of the Chevy Chase, MD, Fire Department and chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.