Ten Years of News at Firehouse.com

Jan. 10, 2009

I have been with Firehouse.com for only 8.5 years of its 10-year existence, so I am a little shy of the complete history. But during these years I have had the privilege of being present for incidents and actions of historic significance to the fire service.

Founders/firefighters Dave Ianonne and Chris Hebert launched Firehouse.com with the mission statement, "The web's community and resource for firefighting, EMS, rescue and safety." In June of 2000, along with recent J-school graduate Heather Caspi, now the editor of our sister site EMSResponder.com, I became responsible for part of that resource - those news headlines on the homepage.

The Dec. 3, 1999 Massachusetts fire that killed six firefighters in Worcester demonstrated to the small Firehouse.com staff that the fire service was hungry for news coverage of their profession. Our team's coverage immediately following the fire and of the memorial service illustrated how firefighters providing news for firefighters could be so much more informative and fulfilling compared to coverage from main-stream news sources. Recognizing that, the presentation of hard-breaking news on Firehouse.com took off as our top priority.

I am not a firefighter. I have been a journalist for a long time though, a generalist journalist, you could say. That can put you at a disadvantage in the eyes of the subject expert, in this case firefighters. But I have been surrounded by firefighters for my expert resource needs, and as a generalist, I can judge how our readers will react to a variety of news story content.

Like the rest of the population of this country and the world, September 11, 2001 pushed to the maximum Firehouse.com's "community and resource" mission. Literally, our IT people struggled to keep us online with the volume of traffic that swamped our site from the very first moment that morning.

The headlines came from everywhere, all day long for weeks and months. The thirst was enormous for a look below the surface of most media coverage to the specifics of the disaster for the fire service.

We had a lifeline of information through Firehouse Magazine whose roots are grounded in FDNY and New York City.

The loss of 343 firefighters was overwhelming to the department. The task of recovery was numbing for them but often we found they had a moment to answer a phone call from Firehouse.com. And many involved in the unfolding story came to us with ideas and information to share.

The news came from many directions. We posted audio files released by FDNY of the dispatch and operations from that fateful day. Firehouse.com compiled a comprehensive, searchable database of the fallen emergency services workers in New York.

And an interesting development occurred when Firehouse.com teamed with the IAFF who saw our site as reaching an enormous audience, to solicit donations for their "New York Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund." Although we never counted, probably millions of dollars came through our doors destined for the IAFF and the firefighter victim survivors in NYC.

From breaking news to the more mundane - but perhaps as important as any to the fire service - was the FIRE Act (Firefighter Investment and Response Enhancement Act), today known as the Assistance to Firefighter Grant (AFG) Program that moved from an idea to a federal program signed into law on October 30, 2000.

The FIRE Act authorized one billion dollars per year over a five year period to fund competitive grants at local fire departments. It has never been funded to that authorized annual billion dollars but for FY2003, Congress appropriated $745 million. But from the day we announced its existence, it has been important news to firefighters.

From grant writing classes, to application deadlines, to award announcements we saw at Firehouse.com a thirst for information on a program that has made a tremendous difference to resources in thousands of firehouses across the nation. And it continues today. We know each next deadline notice and award announcement will be heavily viewed when we put it up in the headlines.

AFG, SAFER, Public Safety grants have added significant resources to the fire service and provided studies that have discovered new and better ways of making PPE and SCBA. A recent study and experiments have looked closely at positive pressure ventilation. Others have dealt with physiological studies of firefighters under working conditions.

Perhaps one of the most significant projects funded by AFG is the National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System which recently marked its 2000th submission.

Firehouse.com reported in August, 2004 at the IAFC annual conference in New Orleans, the creation and operation of the system by the IAFC. Today it is widely used by firefighters to report and read about situations that could have but did not lead to tragedy. It can be said without a doubt that somewhere in this country, a lesson learned from these reports has saved a life during fire ground operations.

Safety and specifically safety leading to prevention of injury or death has always been a dominant theme on our site because readership on this subject is always high. It was brought home clearly to us when in 2002 we republished a body shop fire story out of Pensacola, Florida. In that story a fire captain reported that he had just read an article - on Firehouse.com - about an Indiana firefighter killed when an explosion at an auto body business collapsed a facade of the building. "That was on my mind when I pulled up," he said. "I tried to keep the civilians away from the building. In two minutes the whole building was involved." Seven explosions were reported.

That leads to Line of Duty Deaths and firefighter injuries, which as one might expect, continue to be the headlines that garner the most viewer attention on Firehouse.com. We get a lot of email from viewers telling us about news incidents. Always, LODDs create a flood of news tips making sure we are aware.

We understand these stories are the most personal and life-affecting for firefighters and their families for obvious reasons. We attempt to provide as much information as possible about the incident from the first report, to funerals, to understanding the circumstances through after-action reports and NIOSH investigations.

Reporting LODDs has created some controversy. Over these last 10 years more than 1,000 firefighters have given their lives and had the incident reported on Firehouse.com. But Firehouse.com has for the most part refrained from leading the news headlines with those incidents. We do everything we can to prominently honor the fallen but have felt that headlines of death repeated 100 times a year may not be the first message that a viewer always needs to see when they open our home page; just as important is a level of balance in the news for the sake of overall knowledge and morale.

There have been exceptions to that editorial approach, unfortunately. The Worcester Six became the first "mission" for Firehouse.com and there have continued to be multiple traumatic death incidents that have become historic chapters in the annals of the fire service, and prominent headlines on Firehouse.com.

The fire that took nine Charleston, South Carolina firefighters in June, 2007 is a continuing story even now, and bringing that entire story to the fire service remains our "mission." On duty deaths involving trauma usually provide a lesson, sometimes so obvious that it is difficult to understand how they could have happened.

The Lairdsville, NY tragedy of September 25, 2001 which led to the trial and conviction of Lairdsville's former assistant fire chief for criminal negligence, was one of those stories. A young man who had only been a volunteer firefighter for a few weeks, who had not received any formalized training and had never worn SCBA in fire conditions, was used as a victim on the second floor of a house in a live-burn training session. He was killed in the fire as everything that could go wrong did, in a situation that should never have existed.

In January of 2005 in an incident later named Black Sunday, six trapped FDNY firefighters had to jump from fourth floor windows. They had no rescue ropes and two of the firefighters died.

Why no ropes? There were many reasons, most of them illogical. But it didn't take long for FDNY to make sure all firefighters were re-equipped with them.

When I tell people who I work for they usually say, "Oh, you write about fires." I do. But I do not consider fires to be the single subject of my efforts. Rather, I strive to provide stories on Firehouse.com that are about the lives and the work of firefighters - the real individuals behind the uniform - and their dealings with fires and rescue.

Interestingly, this creates a valuable element of our news production; the people in the fire service have become involved themselves making sure we are aware of the news as it happens. Everyday our email is filled with tips and alerts of incidents happening across the nation.

The members of the fire service know that Firehouse.com will deliver the information to all who want to know what is or will be affecting their lives today and in the future.

That is the community and resource.

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