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Fire/EMS Safety & Health Week: Rules vs. DNA

The 2012 International Fire/EMS Safety & Health Week theme is “Rules you can live by.” If you have been in the fire service for 12 months, you know the rules that will keep you from getting injured, killed, fired, voted out or disciplined. You have also seen or read about most of these rules broken by other firefighters with no negative consequences. The longer you are in the service the more rules you will see broken or not enforced and sometimes even rewarded.

Not following the rules is part of our culture and what the public has come to expect from us.  Society gives us permission not to follow the rules. We get these special privileges because people call us when they are having a really bad day that is getting worse and endangering their lives and property.

Our country was founded on the principle that people are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights; among which are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. When your house is on fire, your life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are in jeopardy. If nothing is done, your neighbors rights are at risk as well. Left unchecked, the entire community can be lost. 

From the beginning of the United States of America, society has expected firemen (today we are called firefighters) to come fix the problem. We have done this willingly with great pride, skill, courage and sacrifice. All the while we are being cheered on by an adoring public. Even our death is commended by God; John 15:13 “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” How many times have you heard this Bible passage at a firefighter funeral? When we get killed, it is a line-of-duty death (LODD) and the whole town turns out to show respect and share grief. We have been doing this for almost 300 years.

The number one Life Safety Initiative of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation's "Everyone Goes Home" campaign is, "Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility."  When the leaders of the fire service wrote this more than eight years ago, I was there. They knew the firefighter injury and death problem was not a lack of rules, or lack of knowledge of the rules, or lack of training on the rules, or lack of the ability to follow the rules. It was the fact that firefighters and fire departments pick and choose what rules to follow and what rules to ignore. In 1974, renowned author Frank Brannigan said, “We are not killing firemen in any new ways.”

Brannigan’s statement was confirmed in 2010 by Drs. Kunadharaju, Smith and DeJoy, from the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, in a published paper titled "Line of Duty Deaths among U.S. Firefighters: An Analysis of Fatality Investigations." They studied 189 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that included 213 LODDs from 2004 to 2009. The NIOSH reports made a total of 1,167 recommendations to reduce firefighter injury and death. The researchers categorized the recommendations into five factors:

  1. Incident Command
  2. Personnel
  3. Equipment
  4. Operations/Tactics
  5. External     

The researchers applied root-cause analysis techniques to the data set to determine the basic or higher order causes that they classified as: under resourcing; inadequate preparation for/anticipation of adverse events; incomplete adoption of incident command procedures; and sub-optimal personnel readiness. An important point they made is that these higher order causes "…do not provide any definitive insights as to their origin," but "… may actually be tapping the basic culture of firefighting."

The researchers go on to make the following comment about the core culture of firefighting: "Operating with too few resources, compromising certain roles and functions, skipping or short-changing operational steps and safeguards and relying on extreme individual efforts and heroics may reflect the cultural paradigm of firefighting. This should not be construed to be a culture of negligence or incompetence, but rather a culture of longstanding acceptance and tradition. Within many fire service organizations, these operational tenets may be accepted as 'the way we do things.' Moreover, this tolerance of risk may be reinforced both externally and internally through the positive public image of firefighters and firefighting and internally through the fire service's own traditions and member socialization."

What are the paradigms of firefighting that makeup our culture of longstanding acceptance and tradition?  What are the operational tenants that are accepted as the way we do thing? What is it that the pubic and fire service reinforce through socialization and positive public image?  In other words, to understand culture we must identify the underlying assumptions that drive our behavior (Schein, 2004). What is it in firefighter DNA that drives our behavior and the public reinforces?

From Ben Franklin to today, all firefighters have the same DNA made up of six genes: fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death (FCWRID). These genes have been passed down for generations from firefighters and the public. Our gene sequence has driven our behavior and rule development throughout our history (Clark, 2011).

Fast - In the beginning, firemen ran to the fire as fast as they could, pulling the hose cart and carrying the buckets. Today we drive the apparatus as fast as we can, with permission to ignore public traffic laws because we must be fast. If we crash into a citizen on the way to the fire and kill them, we are shielded, in some states, from gross negligence because we must be fast and we rarely get a ticket. If a firefighter in the crash gets killed, it is an LODD and their family will receive a $320,000 federal death benefit. The benefit is paid even if the firefighter was not wearing his or her seatbelt. In some states, firefighters are not required to use seatbelts when responding because they must be fast. Finally, the worst thing that can happen is to get beat into your first-due area by another company or have another fire company steal your fire. Even NFPA standards require us to be fast, we must be out of the station in 60 seconds.

Close - When you only have a bucket of water to throw on the fire, you have to get very close. Today we are trying to develop a higher temperature facemask lens so we can get close to the fire because the present plastic lens melts at 536 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wet - In my 42-year career, we have gone from 2 1/2-inch and 1 1/2-inch to 1 3/4-inch, 2-inch 3-inch and 5-inch hoselines; we've used slippery water, Class A foam, High-X foam and compressed air foam; and gone from 350 gpm to 2,000 gpm pumps. Yet, when you read the NIOSH reports of these deaths in building fires, in many cases water was missing either from an attack line or fire sprinkler. When the public and firefighters think wet, we see big red fire trucks not little fire sprinkler heads.

Risk - It’s what makes us special in our own eyes and the minds of the public.  We, and the public, believe firefighters will save their life, property and community. “Risk a lot to save a lot - risk nothing to save nothing” is our slogan today. But it is up to each firefighter and each fire department to define "a lot, nothing and risk." The slogan did not help in February 1973 when my community lost seven people in three house fires. They were dead before we left the station. This was before residential smoke alarms. Our risk slogan did not help in March 2012 when people died in a house fire that you could see from the fire station, but there were no working smoke alarms. The fire service and public give our highest awards to the firefighters who take the greatest risk. Nobody gets awards for installing smoke alarms. Some states even outlaw residential fire sprinkler codes. Courage and valor awards are given to firefighters who do not follow the rules because fire warriors take risks.

Injury - It’s the firefighter's red badge of courage and the public recognizes it. Your third-degree burns may be referenced when you are appointed as fire chief or you may get a congressional or manufacturer's award when you get out of the burn unit. Firefighters who are injured are rarely disciplined or denied workmen’s comp, even if they were not following the rules. After all, risk and injury go hand-in-hand, so firefighter injury is part of the job.

Death - “Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact.  When a man becomes a fireman, his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work. They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked. They went there to put the fire out, and got killed. Firemen do not regard themselves as heroes because they do what the business requires.” This 1908 quote from FDNY Chief Ed Croker, spoken upon the death of a deputy chief and four firemen, has been repeated throughout my time in the fire service, even by the Vice President of the United States.  In 1976, my lieutenant paraphrased the death gene when he stated “Firemen have to get killed, it's part of the job” (Clark, 1976). Even today, some of my contemporaries state “Not Everyone Goes Home.”

Chief Alan Brunacini shines light on our "Rule vs. DNA" death gene abnormality with this statement: "When the fire kills us, our department typically conducts a huge ritualistic funeral ceremony, engraves our name on the honor wall and makes us an eternal hero. Every LODD gets the same terminal ritual regardless if the firefighter was taking an appropriate risk to protect a savable life or was recreationally freelancing in a clearly defensive place. A Fire Chief would commit instant occupational suicide by saying that the reason everyone is here today in their dress blues is because the dearly departed failed to follow the department safety plan. Genuine bravery and terminal stupidity both get the same eulogy. Our young firefighters are motivated and inspired to attack even harder by the ceremonialization of our battleground deaths."

Your firefighter DNA genes (fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death) will trump rules every time. Most of the time, one abnormal gene does not negatively affect the outcome, but when two or more mutate, turgidity can results.  Changing your DNA is hard, but you can change your behavior if you know what is driving it.

In January 2012, a 19-year-old volunteer, who just completed Firefighter 1, was killed in a single-car crash responding to a garage fire in his personal vehicle at high speed with no seatbelt. Our FRD (fast, risk, death) genes killed him. In April 2012, a 60-year-old career lieutenant and a 25-year-old career firefighter died when a wall they were inspecting collapsed on them, 29 minutes after the five-alarm fire in a vacant warehouse was brought under control. Our CRD (close, risk, death) genes killed them. I pray our three brothers’ rest in peace along with all the other LODDs - past and future.

Whether you are a firefighter for 12 months or 42 years, you pick Rules vs. DNA to live by every day on every call. At your next drill, consider firefighter gene therapy for fast, close, wet, risk, injury and death - it may let you go home one more time.


  • Brunacini, A.V., 2008. "Fast /Close/Wet: Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy and Practice." Public Entity Risk Institute, Fairfax, VA.
  •  Clark, B.A., 2011. “Your behavior comes from Ben Franklin's DNA”, Oct 2011. 
  • Clark, B. A. 1976. “I don’t want my ears burned” Fire Command, July 1976 p.17
  • Kunadharaju, K., Smith, T. D. and DeJoy, D. M., 2011. "Line of Duty Deaths among U.S. Firefighters: An Analysis of Fatality Investigations.” Accident Analysis and Prevention. 43, 1117-1180.
  • National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, 2004. "Everyone Goes Home: 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives." NFFF, Emmitsburg, MD.
  • Schein, E.H., 2004. Organizational Culture and Leadership. Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA. 


DR. BURTON A. CLARK, EFO, CFO has been in the fire service for 41 years. He was a firefighter in Washington, D.C., Prince Georges County, MD and assistant chief in Laurel, MD. He has served as Operations Chief for DHS/FEMA and is now the Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy and a Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Injury Research and Policy. Burt has a BS is in Business Administration from Strayer University, MA in Curriculum and Instruction from Catholic University, and Ed.D. in Adult Education from Nova Southeastern University and he writes, lectures, and teaches fire service research, safety, and professional development worldwide.