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Firefighter Philosophy in One Word: Why?

Editor's note: We would like to congratulate Dr. Burton Clark as he prepares to retire from the U.S. Fire Administration. He has committed the last 44 years of his life to educating the fire service on topics from prevention to safety. 

Philosophers don’t think or write about firefighters and very few firefighters think or write about philosophy. But, that does not mean philosophy and firefighting are not connected at a very critical level, which accounts for the manifest identity or core mission of the fire service – fight fire, save lives and save property. Wikipedia can supply us with a working definition of philosophy:

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with reality, existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument. In more casual speech, by extension, "philosophy" can refer to "the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group… The word "philosophy" comes from the Ancient Greek which literally means "love of wisdom".

We see the power of philosophy to influence all the time. Society decided that drinking and driving were unacceptable thanks to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Sexual assault by priests on children became unacceptable thanks to Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and, most recently thanks to a new Pope. 

For years I have said, “More firefighters are disciplined for being late for work then safety violations.” I don’t have the data to prove this, but no one has ever disagreed or presented information to the contrary. In 1976, I wrote “That which a society or group accepts is what it is likely to get.” Because my lieutenant said “firefighters have to get killed, it’s part of the job.” 1 These notions go to the basic philosophical questions about our fire culture in society, the discipline, organizations, or groups. There is a philosophical aspect to every human action, reaction, thought, feeling, or belief. Socrates’ was teaching us to examine the why behind each of these throughout our life.

Let the examination begin.

If you have sex at the fire station, chances are you will be fired2, but if you drive the battalion chief’s car over 100 mph, no problem.3 These examples are not to disparage any individual fire department or firefighter. It is to illustrate how culture and the philosophy behind it help us identify what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

When we examine the cultural foundation to some specific behavior, we are trying to answer the philosophical question “why?” Why did the firefighter not use his seat belt? Why did the firefighter disable the seat belt alarm? Why was he speeding? Why did he drive through the red light? Why did he die when ejected from the apparatus? Why do we consider it a line-of-duty death? Why does the federal government give his survivor $330,000 death benefit? Why do we treat his death as heroic?4 Why did the house catch fire? Why was the smoke alarm not working? Why does the state law forbid mandatory residential fire sprinkler laws in new home construction? Why did a mom, dad and their two children die in the house fire?5

What is the philosophical wisdom that drives these next four examples of cultural artifacts and the underlying assumption they are based on? The death of 19 firefighters in Arizona was investigated by two separate groups, which came to very different conclusions. Fire service conclusion: nothing went wrong.Occupational safety conclusion: willful, serious violations resulting in death.7 A state legislature and governor overturned a mandatory residential sprinkler law for new residential occupancies.8  The same legislature and governor approved a cancer presumption law for firefighters.9

My 22-year-old grandson, Gage, just began his journey down the philosophical road to wisdom when he said, “Grandpa, when I was a kid I thought grownups had all the answers, and now that I’m older I realize they don’t know all the answers.”  My reply, as a 64 -year-old, was “Yes, we are all trying to figure life out.”

Whether you are the newest firefighter on your crew or the senior officer at the incident, how well you examined life before you arrived may determine the outcome. Unfortunately, philosophy is not presently included in any fire service curriculum, from basic to the most advanced.  Luckily, asking why is part of our basic human nature and it may be what makes us human.  

The American Fire Culture (watch video) helps explain why; it is hard to ask the philosophical question why do we have this culture? By asking the hard questions about culture, we help insure our survival as a species at the human level and help insure everyone goes home at the firefighter level.

If you want to begin a concise philosophical journey to fire service wisdom; read the references and ask yourself why about the content, author, and most importantly your reaction to the reading? 

Fire Service Philosophy 101 begins. At the personal level, it may help you understand why you behave the way you do on your next call and go home after it. At the societal level, it may help you understand our fire culture and the why behind it. Understanding why is always the first step to wisdom and just by asking the question we are living an examined life.


  1. "I don't want my ears burned!" 
  2. Ohio Chief: Terminate FF Who Had Sex in the Station
  3. Columbus Fire Officers Flagged for High-Speed Responses 
  4. Why Firefighters Need to Embrace Seat Belt Use
  5. Response to Deadly Ohio Fire Appropriate, Chief Says
  6. Yarnell Hill Fire Report by Scott Hunt, State Forester, Airzona State Forestry Division
  7. Yarnell Hill Fire Report by Arizona Dept. of Occupational Safety and Health
  8. Gov. Tom Corbett signs repeal of house-sprinkler mandate
  9. Gov. signs firefighter cancer bill

The opinions expressed are the author’s and do not represent any organization he may be associated with.

DR. BURTON A. CLARK has been in the fire service for 44 years. He was a firefighter in Washington, DC and Assistant Fire Chief in Laurel, MD. He is the Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy and serves as an Operations Chief during national disasters and emergencies for the DHS/FEMA. Clark has a BS is in Business Administration from Strayer University, MA in Curriculum & Instruction from Catholic University and Ed.D. in Adult Education from Nova Southeastern University. He studied fire science at Montgomery College with Professor Frank Brannigan, Emergency Management at the Emergency Management Institute, National Security at the National Defense University, and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. He is a nationally certified Fire Officer Four, Chief Fire Officer Designee, and Eagle Scout Mentor. Clark writes, lectures, and teaches fire service research, safety and professional development worldwide.