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...


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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.