Guest Commentary: Father's Day, a Time to Take Stock of Ourselves

A s a third-generation firefighter, and as Father’s Day approaches, my thoughts are with my late father, Lieutenant John “Jack” Byrne, decorated, of the Boston, MA, Fire Department. He entered the profession in 1962, following in the footsteps of my grandfather, who started us off in 1929. Three of my uncles also served the City of Boston from the 1940s to the 1980s, with one of them earning a medal for heroism and another dying in the line of duty.

My father never saw me become a career firefighter. But I often think about what it would be like if he were still with me today. What would we talk about? There are so many dramatic differences between the fire service he served and the one I serve today, and I can’t help but wonder what he would think about what his generation passed on to us. Would he be proud or would he be disappointed? I think both.

An idolized generation

My grandfather, father and uncles were firefighters of a generation we idolize to this day. They fought more fires in a shift than many of us today will do in a year. America was burning and they were on the front line. But they were also a generation who had had enough. Firefighter line-of-duty deaths peaked at 173 in 1978, during their time of service. I never knew my grandfather or my Uncle Fred, and my Uncle Bobby is but a faint memory. They all died young men and missed so much.

They were all heroes who fought a war without the weapons and protection we enjoy today. But even if they survived the battleground, many later succumbed to heart disease, cancer, emphysema and countless other diseases. That generation of firefighters, and those who went before them, deserve our honor and idolization. We must honor them, and not just with plaques and dinner-table tales of heroics, but by taking the lessons they paid for so dearly to teach us and using that information to take our profession into the future and continue the pursuit of saving lives.

Operationally, we have done just that and so much more. If my father were alive today on this Father’s Day, he would be amazed by all the advances we bring to the fireground – self-contained breathing apparatus for every firefighter, thermal imagers, five-inch supply lines, full bunker gear, the Incident Command System, personnel accountability, integrated PASS devices and 2,000-plus-gpm pumps, to name just a few.

Many of our fellow firefighters are alive today, and will be alive long into retirement to watch their grandchildren achieve their dreams because of our operational advances. I am sure my father would be proud to see that the pounding he and those he served with took all those years paid off and that today’s firefighters don’t have to pay such a high price. What father doesn’t want better for his children? There is no doubt that our fire service forefathers would rejoice at what we’ve accomplished operationally.

But the fact remains we are missing one of the biggest lessons our forefathers taught us, and on this Father’s Day we should take stock and make the changes that still need to be made. There were other changes ushered into our profession by this generation that are less known and celebrated because they lack bravado and obvious heroics, yet they played a big role, albeit not enough, in many of the positive changes that have saved countless lives. They are not recounted in the stories of legend like a major fire, but are nevertheless annotated in the bible of today’s fire service – the 1973 America Burning report.

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) was born during their reign, as was the National Fire Academy. Fire was no longer just fought, but studied, and these studies led to improvements in areas such as the fabric of furniture and children’s nightclothes, drastic changes to fire codes and enforcement and regulations pertaining to building materials. They not only took fire prevention into public buildings, but into private homes with the creation of fire and life safety educators and public education and fire safety messages.

I remember with pride when my father came to my school in his dress uniform to talk about fire prevention to my classmates and I still have copies of my father’s fire inspection reports from the 1970s. I recall his frustrations in telling my sisters, my brother and me about all the blatant obvious fire hazards he and his crews found. The fact is they hated doing inspections because they felt they were largely being ignored, but they persisted because that’s what their profession asked of them. The end result of this dedication? An approximate 50% reduction in fires and the saving of the lives of countless civilians who might otherwise have been lost, along with the firefighters who might have died in battles that never happened. Add to that the carcinogens and other toxic chemicals that otherwise would have been inhaled to cause the untimely end to thousands of fire service careers and leave empty seats at graduations and weddings.

Taking preventable risks?

Like all enemies, ours has adapted, yet we have not. With all the advances we have made and our increased knowledge, we still approach our service delivery based on a centuries-old model of response and suppression. Focusing on operational advances has left our service and profession lopsided. What we have essentially done is advanced ourselves to a point where we continue to throw firefighters at largely preventable risks and do so at the neglect of the civilians we should be protecting. Our operational advances have centered on getting to the scene faster with more people and water and putting our firefighters in gear so thermally protected that they are taking increased risks by going deeper into places they have no business being at in the first place.

The enemy our fathers battled decades ago took 15 to 20 minutes from ignition to flashover. This meant firefighters had the time they needed to receive the alarm, respond to the alarm, get set up and initiate an attack and still make a save or confine the fire to its room of origin. There was time to act safely. Today, however, our enemy goes from ignition to flashover in three to five minutes. This means the fire often has flashed before our apparatus leave the station, and we arrive on scene with very little to left to save and confront an out-of-control and volatile situation. We are essentially charging at an enemy who already has the high ground. Who fights a war like that?

We must accept the facts that we have gotten our “on-scene” times down as far as they will ever safely get until the invention of teleportation and that once flashover occurs, it matters not in many circumstances how much water we bring (unless you lack hydrants and a water system) or how many bodies arrive. This is not to say we don’t invest in technology and proper staffing, but this is a lopsided approach to protecting lives and property and self-defeating in everything we hope to achieve in the fire service.

We are also focusing all our time, effort and training on saving ourselves in the name of “brotherhood” and doing so at the expense of the almost 2,500 civilians who die in fire every year; the large percentage of whom are the most vulnerable among us, the very young and very old who need us the most. We would rather spend whole conferences and training programs on rescuing a downed firefighter than perform inspections to prevent the very fires that will cause these firefighters to go down in the first place, along with saving the very civilians we are sworn to protect and the whole reason we exist. That is not what our forefathers intended and with this they would surely shake their heads in disappointment. The lesson we need to learn and accept, that was proven by our forefathers in the 1970s, is that the key to fire service delivery, and truly protecting lives and property, is to get ahead of the fire and prevent it from occurring in the first place; and the need to place equal emphasis on fire prevention as an operational approach.

This Father’s Day, firefighters in our nation will hold memorials for firefighters who died in the line of duty on this day. On Father’s Day 1972, nine of Boston’s bravest perished at the Hotel Vendome while overhauling after a floor collapsed due to the removal of load-bearing walls during renovations – adherence to codes might have saved them. On Father’s Day 2001, three of the FDNY’s bravest were killed and several were injured by an explosion at a commercial building fire in Queens. The cause of the fire that took their lives involved teenagers and gasoline – adherence to fire safety education might have saved them.

It’s time this Father’s Day to honor our forefathers by taking stock in our profession, asking the tough questions and looking honestly at how we do business. We owe it to the firefighters who have gone before us and who sacrificed immeasurably in the pursuit of serving the public and saving lives with their limited technology and knowledge. They had to accept risk, yet we today do so because we choose to.

Father’s Day is a day for fathers to be appreciated, remembered and honored. This Father’s Day, as a professional fire service, we must give that some thought. Are we truly appreciating, remembering and honoring our fire service forefathers?

Firefighters are still dying for largely unnecessary reasons from fires that are starting, spreading and killing from known and preventable causes, yet thousands of highly educated, motivated and professional firefighters sit idle in fire stations across the U.S. waiting for the avoidable risk to occur that may claim their lives or those of their crew mates. But is this what our fathers intended? What future and legacy do we hope to pass on to our sons and daughters? Yes, this Father’s Day is indeed a day for reflection. Let’s not let this opportunity pass. n