Firefighter Philosophy in One Word: Why?

Socrates said, "An unexamined life is not worth living" while author Dr. Burton Clark says "because firefighters may get killed."


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

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