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...

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.