Back in January, I wrote a blog post asking the question, “Can we establish a common understanding of risk? Or.. should we write it off?” Because my tongue was planted firmly in my cheek when I posed the question, I don’t want the point to be missed. I believe our duty to ourselves and our beloved fire service cannot be separated from our duty to the citizens we are sworn to and are obligated to protect. What is good for us is good for them. My question is, are we seeing this trend to "let it burn" because we have given-up the fight to provide our members with all of those things that are necessary to provide effective and efficient fire and rescue services? Have we rolled-over, bent-over and given up our hopes to provide excellent service and the ability to accurately assess risk? Have we allowed those that seek to undermine our mission to gain a foot-hold? Have we become complacent because we don’t believe it can or will happen today? Are the enemies of the fire service going to be allowed to dismantle our combat readiness to the point where the easy or only option is to “let it burn”?
When you have a few minutes, please view the FDIC keynote speech given by Lt. Ray McCormack. It was indeed an honor for me to be present as Lt. McCormack delivered a passionate plea to the fire service, to keep fire in our lives. I couldn’t agree more and as the saying goes, Ray’s speech spoke to me. Rather than commenting on or adding to Ray’s speech, I’ll let it stand on its own as a clarion call to the American fire service. We can’t allow the “safety experts” that promote the “let it burn” philosophy to convince firefighters that we should place our safety and our lives above the lives of our citizens.
As I further ponder the question of safety as it relates to risk and our sworn duty and obligation, the reality of the situation has come into focus. The American fire service is divided into two camps. Both camps speak to their cause with passion and righteousness. In one camp are the “guardians” of safety, many of whom have decided that no building or the contents of that building are worth the life of a firefighter. The other camp seeks to direct the conversation toward our sworn duty to safeguard not only the lives of those we are sworn to protect, but their property as well. This camp of so called “reckless” firefighters is far more interested making sure that our members are competent, predictable, professional and combat ready. This camp believes that the best way to improve the safety of our members is to provide fire departments with the necessary manpower required to mount an aggressive, coordinated interior fire attack. This camp’s approach requires that fire departments build battle ready fire suppression forces and dedicate the appropriate resources to demanding training programs, adherence to sound operational procedures and a constant attention to and a demand that firefighters respond to every call as if it was the real thing. And finally, we believe as Lt. Ray McCormack articulated, that the fire service is wrong to place the lives of firefighters above the lives of civilians.
The guardians of safety are not shy about their disdain for the other camp, the “reckless holdovers of a long lost era in the fire service". They seek to discredit this camp by questioning our dedication to safety, saying that we are so bound by tradition and the mentality that we do things because “we always do it that way” that we are endangering our members. I’m growing weary of defending myself and like-minded firefighters against constant attacks from the disciples of the “let it burn” philosophy. It is impossible to have a reasoned, logical discussion with someone that will use the tragic loss of a firefighter in the line of duty to justify their philosophy. Their favorite arguments are fashioned following the tragic loss of a Brother or Sister in a building that was later determined to be unoccupied. After the fact, it’s easy to ask, “was that building worth a firefighter’s life?”
As I said in the earlier post, there is a fundamental difference between firefighters and the rest of the world. When we take the oath, with our right hands raised, we agree to certain things and these things become our solemn duty, our obligation. These duties include the understanding that a time may and likely will come when we have to be willing to risk everything…..to save the life of a stranger. We also have a duty and obligation to take risk for a stranger’s property. That’s the deal, this is what makes us different from everyone else, with the exception of the military.
To be sure, we have other obligations as husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. We have still more obligations and duties to our friends and extended families. No one wants to die; however, our duty to perform our job and our obligation to the citizens we protect rightly takes precedence when faced with the saving of a life and given a fighting chance. When our citizens, in spite of all of our education and prevention efforts, end up needing to be rescued, we are all they have. No one else will come to save them, they will surely die alone if not for our efforts.
We also have a duty and an obligation to protect their property. A person’s home represents the bulk of their life’s investment. Their home is filled with a lifetime of memories and priceless items that would be lost forever in an extensive fire. What is your home worth? My home remains “vacant” and “unoccupied” much of the time; however, if there was a fire in my home, I assure you that I would expect the fire department to mount an aggressive interior attack to save my property. I believe that we have that agreement that contract with our citizens. A recent fire in Chicago involved the Holy Name Cathedral. The Holy Name Cathedral was built in 1874 and it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, one of the largest Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States. What was the value of this “unoccupied” church? What level of risk is acceptable for this truly priceless property? I can tell you that the building was saved because the Chicago Fire Department mounted an aggressive, coordinated interior attack that was truly remarkable. The skill and courage displayed in extending large caliber hand lines up to the attic from the interior, across narrow catwalks and through barriers to fight this fire and save this building that has so much meaning to the people of Chicago and beyond was only accomplished at great risk to the firefighters involved. If, God forbid, something had happened to any of those firefighters, we would have to answer the same questions….is there any building or property worth the life of a firefighter?
I fear that the “let it burn” movement, under the guise of safety is gaining momentum. I fear that more members of our service are falling under their spell and being convinced that we should not commit our members to “vacant” or “unoccupied” structures because no building or property is worth a life. Of course no building or property is worth the life of a firefighter. If we could know that a life would be lost before we arrive instead of after the fire is out and the investigation is completed, who would commit their members to the fight? This is why it is difficult to have a reasoned, logical and thoughtful discussion, if this is where we start, how can we ever have open and honest dialog.
I believe the safety of our members is dependent on our training, our experience and our ability to make sound decisions on the fireground, where it has always been. We must obtain and maintain a high level of proficiency in the fundamental company functions. Engine companies must be very good at quickly stretching the right size and length hose -line to the right location and getting water on the fire. Truck companies need to have excellent laddering, forcible entry and ventilation skills along with the courage and skill required to search under hostile conditions. Finally, we must have the manpower necessary to accomplish the mission.
The “let it burn” approach is, in my estimation, the easy approach to safety. The far more difficult approach is for our fire service leaders to work with our elected and appointed officials and if necessary, take up the fight to provide us with the necessary manpower required to mount an aggressive, coordinated interior attack. It’s hard work and takes a great deal of perseverance for our leaders to demand a high level of consistent, predictable and professional performance. It’s hard to provide the kind and amount of training we need to make good, sound decisions on the fireground and to recognize changing fire conditions. It takes guts to speak-out against the complacency and laziness that is having a devastating effect on our ability to safeguard the lives and property of the citizens we are sworn to protect. Letting it burn is the easy way.
I ask you not to take the easy road, it doesn’t take a great deal of skill, knowledge or training to “let it burn”. I ask our leaders to dedicate yourselves to the difficult process of building properly manned, highly skilled, well trained, competent, professional firefighting forces. I ask the members to dedicate yourselves to the hard work of becoming craftsmen. Don’t be satisfied to learn the basics or to maintain the minimum standard. By craftsmanship, I mean to seek out as much information on every conceivable topic by asking questions, conducting research, reading and doing. Learn the fundamentals and then go beyond the basics to create a depth of knowledge that allows you to be flexible enables you to improvise and gives you the ability to troubleshoot problems and fashion solutions. And finally, it is the citizens we serve, not ourselves.