when I was a rookie fireman in 1970 at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department (KVFD) Company 33, Prince George’s County Fire Department, (PGFD) MD, an old timer (he was 35, I was 20) told me, “The next call you go on may be the biggest fire in your career, so you must be ready.” At the time, the KVFD was responding to about 1,000 alarms per year and many were working fires. This advice was burned into me, literally and figuratively, at the affective, cognitive and psychomotor levels of learning. I was among the top 10 responders my first year as a firemen and I was injected with Ben Franklin’s DNA for the next 40 years.

The 2011 safety stand down week theme was “Surviving the Fireground.” When does fireground survival begin? The place to start insuring your survival on the fireground is at the fire station before the alarm. If there is no water in the engine’s tank, or your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) only has 1,000 psi, or your hood and gloves are missing from your bunker coat, or the battery in your portable radio is dead, the chances of you surviving the fireground are beginning to diminish.

When I read the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty-death (LODD) reports on fireground fatalities, I wonder what little change in the sequence of events could have avoided the error that lead to the tragedy? We have not invented any new way to injure or kill firefighters; Professor Frank Brannigan taught me that in 1974, and it is still true today.

If you do not put your seatbelt on before the apparatus begins to move, or if your driver fails to check that everyone is buckled in and your officer fails to enforce the seatbelt standard operating procedure (SOP) and your chief doesn’t consider seatbelt use a priority, the chances of you and the crew getting injured or killed on the fireground go up because you are not ready for the biggest fire of your career or any fire for that matter.

It seems as if you, your team and your fire department have decided that SOPs, safety equipment, duty and accountability do not apply to you. Everyone in your department can pick and choose what they do and don’t do. If you and your crew are like this, you are in the majority of the fire service today. As an occupation, more firefighters are disciplined for being late for work than for safety violations.

Blame it on Ben

Why does this persist? We learned it from Ben Franklin over the past 275 years. I know you are thinking “Clark has finally lost his mind. He is blaming seatbelt and fireground LODDs on Ben Franklin.” I am not alone in this thinking, so keep reading.

The number one firefighter life-safety initiative from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) “Everyone Goes Home” campaign states, “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.”

We have to define fire service culture before we can change it. Having a common definition of anything is not easy. Professionals use common definitions among themselves so they can clearly communicate with each other. For example, if I tell you the patient has an open fracture of the left femur, you could all draw a picture of what it looked like whether you are an MD, EMTP, EMTB or first responder.

However, if I asked you to draw a picture of an engine company, we would get a bunch of different drawings. Having a shared definition of fire service culture is difficult because the words must mean the same thing for all fire departments, regardless of size or location. What is the definition of fire service culture, what does it look like, do we all draw the same picture of fire service culture? Does a culture exist in 1.2 million firefighters and 32,000 fire departments nationwide? Let’s start by defining culture as it relates to organizations.

In Organizational Culture and Leadership, 2004 Edgar H. Schein, Professor Emeritus at MIT, the author defines culture as, “A pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.” Firefighter translation “Why we do, what we do.”

Schein also tells us that occupations can have a shared culture if the following conditions are present: intense period of education and apprenticeship; reinforcement of assumptions at meetings; and continuing education sessions. The practice of the occupation requires teamwork and reliance on peer-group evaluation, which preserves and protects the culture. The fire service meets these conditions, so the notion that fire-service discipline has a shared culture is reasonable. This supports the NFFF reference to the need to change the fire-service culture. Before we can change the culture, we have to be able to identify what the culture is. Schein explains that culture has three levels.

Artifacts – visible organizational structures and processes. These are the things we can see, touch, and read.

Espoused Beliefs and Values – represented by our strategies, goals and philosophies (espoused justifications). This is what we tell each other and the public what we do, how we do it and why we do it.

Underlying Assumptions – taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings (ultimate source of values and action). Schein refers to this culture level as the DNA of an organization. For the fire service, this is the basic DNA of what it means to be a firefighter. This genetic code has been passed down from generation to generation of firefighter over the past 275 years. If you do not have it, you are not a real firefighter. This is where Benjamin Franklin started the genetic pool we have today. According to Wikipedia, “A gene is a unit of heredity and is a region of DNA that influences a particular characteristic in an organism.”

It’s in Our Genes

In a paper entitled “FAST/CLOSE/WET,” which was delivered at a Public Entity Risk Institute symposium, entitled “Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy and Practice,” Chief Allen V. Brunacini identified the first three genes of a firefighters DNA. Brunacini wrote, “Ben (Franklin) realized that when there was a fire that the situation required rapid response, so he taught his fire lads that they must be FAST. He also knew that he did not have long range hydraulic application equipment, so his firefighter had to get CLOSE to the fire. Ben also understood that the fire could not live in the same space with an adequate amount of water so he told his troop get the fire WET.”
The next three genes RISK/INJURY/DEATH are all part of the human experience with uncontrolled fire. Humans have been at risk of uncontrolled fire, injured by fire and killed by fire from the beginning of time. Our bodies cannot live in the heat, gases and oxygen-depleted environments that fire can create. Our environment, property and possessions can be destroyed by fire. Anyone who tries to manually control an unwanted fire or save someone or something in the path of an unwanted fire puts themselves at great risk, which can lead to injury and death. Ben Franklin knew this, so his firefighters had to accept this as part of what it meant to be a firefighter. The citizens knew this, so they held the firefighters in great esteem because when called for help, the firefighters would put their bodies between the fire and the citizen to save and protect individuals, families, property and communities from the ravages of fire.

The fire service and society today continue to consider RISK/INJURY/DEATH part of the characteristics that exist when humans get in the path of uncontrolled fire. Recently, this idea was supported by an analysis of NIOSH LODD reports, which helps to identify the cultural paradigm of firefighting and the public image of the fire service.

Drs. Kunadharaju, Smith, and DeJoy, from the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, published a paper titled “Line of Duty Deaths among U.S. Firefighters: An Analysis of Fatality Investigations.” They studied 189 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 5 factors: Incident Command; Personnel; Equipment; Operations/Tactics; and 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 make 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.”

Chief Brunacini confirms these comments from Kunadharaju, Smith and DeJou with the following statement, as only he can, in firefighter language:

“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.”

For the past 275 years, fire service DNA has been made up of these six firefighter genes FAST, CLOSE, WET, RISK, INJURY, DEATH (FCWRID) these are the underlying assumptions which are taken-for granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feeling and are the ultimate source of values and action.

The entire fire service discipline and general public use the FCWRID gene sequence or combination of the genes to predict, justify, explain, accept, reward and improve the fire service. Before you all tar and feather me, or burn me in effigy, remember we and the general public do not do this consciously with malice or incompetence. We learned it from our ancestors who were doing the best they could at the time.

FAST Thinking

I will use just one firefighter gene, FAST, to illustrate how it influences all levels of fire service culture and our behavior.

Artifact: lights and sirens, Opticom, response time standards, state and federal laws that exempt seatbelt use by firefighters, running to the apparatus when a building fire is announced, political discourse related to closing fire stations and increased response time; “If we close these fire stations our average response time will go from 4 minutes and 40 seconds to 5 minutes and 10 seconds.”
Espoused Beliefs and Values: Closing a fire station puts the public at risk because we will not be FAST, if I put my seatbelt on it will slow me down, I can’t put my seatbelt on with all my bunker gear on, my bailout equipment keeps me from putting on my seatbelt, no one beats us into our first-due area, no one steals our fire, firefighter safety is important, we have SOPs, the company officer did not have the time to look at side charley before entering the front door because the fast attack was used, the officer left their portable radio on the fire truck, the crew fell through the floor, no mayday was called, the C.O. and firefighter died in the basement fire making the ultimate sacrifice.

Underlying Assumption: I must be FAST; one of the worst things that can happen is for another fire company to beat you into your first-due area. A fire chief told me, “If we did not respond with lights and siren on all calls, we would not be an emergency service.” Citizens will say, “It took the fire department a long time to get here.” Get in there and get the fire, no one steals our fire. Firefighters get injured and killed responding to alarms in vehicle crashes without their seatbelt on. This is considered a line-of-duty death with full ceremonial honors at the funeral, community-wide shared grief, and LODD cash benefits from local, state and federal levels.

When there is a firefighter LODD, the root cause is rarely, if ever, a technical problem. The underlying cause can be traced back to one or more firefighter genes that drive our behaviors resulting in the ultimate loss. We have accepted this for the past 275 years. If we continue to justify our behavior based on our firefighter genes (FCWRID), more of us will be injured and killed.

Dr. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist, inventor, printer, author, statesman, businessman and educator. As a founding father of the American Fire Service, Ben would be disappointed in us today if all we inherited from him was FAST, CLOSE, WET, RISK, INJURY, DEATH.

Changing your DNA and genes is difficult, but you can change your behavior if you choose. Why should you change? Because “The next call you go on may be the biggest fire in your career, so you must be ready, if you want to survive.”

You and I cannot change fire service culture. But, as a firefighter, what one behavior can you change? As the apparatus driver, what one behavior can you change? As the company officer, what one behavior can you change? As a chief officer, what one behavior can you change? Good questions for your next drill. Your answer may help save a life…including yours!


•Brunacini, A.V., 2008. "Fast /Close/Wet: Reducing Firefighter Deaths and Injuries: Changes in Concept, Policy and Practice." Public Entity Risk Institute, Fairfax, VA.
•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. View all of Burt's articles and podcasts here (http://www.firehouse.com/contributor/5169).