On October 4–5, during the annual Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., the American fire service memorialized the loss of 101 firefighters who perished in the line of duty in 2007, the 25th time in the last 30 years that 100 or more firefighters have died in the line of duty.
As unconscionable as each of these losses may be, in many circles they’ve become the accepted norm, the price of doing business. Despite the valiant and oftentimes heroic efforts of fire service professionals throughout the country, this number has remained relatively unchanged and, considering that the number of fires fought annually has decreased, the percentage of losses has actually increased.
The recent passage of mandated residential sprinklers in newly constructed one- and two-family homes is a refreshing victory for the fire service. This historic vote is proof that when firefighters speak with a unified voice, across ranks and geographies, we can accomplish anything. But the road to prevention (both fires and LODDs) is littered with potholes and blockades.
As important as this vote is, the fight is far from over. We must continue the offensive at the state and local levels to ensure every community adopts this effort. We must remain cognizant of the fact that firefighters conducting manual suppression operations in unprotected structures face an ever-increasing number of hazards. Lightweight building materials have long been identified as the most common ingredient for devastating and sometimes deadly collapses. The increased use of synthetics (i.e., plastics, which are essentially gasoline in a solid state), combined with better insulation, in modern buildings sets the stage for the ever-increasing firefighter sucker punch: flashover/backdraft.
It’s time for us to ask some serious questions: Are the hazards presented by the modern fireground, combined with the preponderant lack of passive fire suppression components (automatic sprinklers and other such control mechanisms), exceeding our capabilities? Are we asking our suppression-based personnel to do the impossible? Is it time for us to interrupt the status quo and consider a new way of doing business?
Although I fully understand that no frontline firefighter or fire officer would ever welcome any such questions, I firmly believe it’s time we interrupt our normal routines and consider the tragic lessons of our recent and historical past. For years we’ve dedicated an abundance of resources to the human side of firefighter safety. Far fewer resources have been directed at preventing the fire before it has a chance to produce these highly predictable losses.
As firefighters and fire officers, we fully understand the importance of strong tactical operations on the fireground, but when was the last time we considered the role of FIRE PREVENTION and its affect on firefighter safety? When was the last time we gave careful consideration to the role of preplanning, building inspections and enforcement? Unfortunately, for most firefighters fire prevention is an afterthought, a backburner issue, something we do 1 week out of the year.
Truth be told, most of us (myself included) haven’t dedicated enough time to fire prevention. Despite its prominence and spoken importance within most departmental mission statements, fire prevention continues to play second fiddle to the more heroically viewed response requirements of fire departments throughout the country. No one can argue the importance of manual fire suppression activities, but the prioritization of suppression over prevention is something we all must question.
For the last 82 years, the American fire service has commemorated the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 with Fire Prevention Week. Increased public education programs, such as smoke-detector inspections/installations and educational offerings at local elementary schools, serve a critical role in reducing the loss of life and property. But it’s time the American fire service takes fire prevention to a new level.
It’s time we go on the offensive, take the battle to the streets and make a conscious effort to prevent fires in the most formidable manner possible.
It’s time we focus on educating not only the public, but also political officials, building contractors and code officials about the hazards we face when called to duty.
It’s time we demand that buildings be designed and engineered to protect not only those who occupy them, but also those who respond when tragedy strikes.
It’s time we balance the playing field and give firefighters a fireground that’s more predictable by ensuring the application and enforcement of modern building codes.
Our mission is to save lives and to protect property. Each and every day, firefighters throughout the country put themselves at risk by battling fires that in most cases could’ve been prevented or controlled through the application of proven fire-prevention mechanisms—education, engineering and enforcement.
Only after we’ve done everything we can to prevent fires can we be certain of our answer to the final question: “Did they die needlessly?”