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There should be no question as to the core mission of any fire department and that should be to help people in their time of need-any people; regardless of their circumstances that includes socio-economic.

Our passion for the job and the compassion for our fellow humans demands that we put everything else ahead of ourselves/our well-being, if need be.

But once again, the bloggers are busy churning up sentiment, punctuated by their eloquent and often emotional perceptions of the “who, what, when, where and why” of the fire service. But as we get further into the discussions, let’s see if the core mission remains intact as the debate moves between fire tactics and fire economics.

Abandoned buildings have come to the forefront in some circles because of the dangers that they pose and for all of the unknowns that might be present. Deteriorating conditions even before fire strikes can tax a multi-alarm response to its limits. Old, foreboding buildings built with brick, heavy timber and bowstring trusses have earned their nickname “widow-maker”. Firefighters enter incidents every day where the hazards are unknown, but what about buildings where the hazards ARE known? Should risk assessments include an element of “luck”? Should core mission come first and risk somewhere after that?

Though the property owner has long since abandoned their property, a robust population of disadvantaged citizens may have taken up residence there. So the abandoned building is neither abandoned nor vacant. Or rather, it is “known” that the disadvantaged may occupy the building; therefore, a search may be conducted where occupants might be present. In your pre-plan files, file this plan under “maybe/might be/could be”. Wait; you say that you still inspect abandoned buildings even after they are abandoned and that you require the sprinkler/alarm systems to remain functional? Then; I have no problem with this at all.

There have been recent examples of these types of buildings yielding rescued victims, so once again; we go back to “start” on the question of when is an abandoned building vacant and is safe to search to confirm said vacancy? I am told by some very good firefighters-jakes that I would trust with my life-that search is the only way to confirm that no one is inside. The decision to search or not may be spelled out in department SOPs, but when a firefighter “reasonably suspects” the presence of occupants, all bets are off at that point. If search isn’t conducted and overhaul yields burnt and deceased victims, the headlines will be damning indeed.

So, the abandoned/vacant/occupied(?) discussions continue, which is healthy. I guess it would depend on your point of view. Some think that the mere discussion is heresy and blasphemy and violates the spirit of the core mission.

“Victim survivability profiling” has become another hot button issue, because it “writes off” victims, which is counter-intuitive to our core mission. If you have been reading about the effects of carbon monoxide  and hydrogen cyanide in smoke inhalation victims (, then you know that without the earliest intervention with antidotal medicine, survival is greatly diminished. Exposure times being the wild card, you could argue that, absence of other trauma, inhalation victims might survive.

Recently, I read a very well-written blog that went into great detail of a fire department that makes the decision that they can’t effect a rescue of two children, due to short staffing. Though it was written in the hypothetical, it was also written as a warning that the day was coming. Although I have yet to see a headline that read, “Firefighters Refuse to Rescue Fire Victims”; I am not so jaded as to believe that it couldn’t happen. I know of departments that were accused of being “too slow”, but that was the naked eye of the untrained observer coming to bear.

But, if we are going to offer the hypothetical scenario where we tell parents that we cannot save their children because, to be safe; we must wait for more manpower, then why is it so hard to accept that a building might be too unsafe to search?

The economic climate is wreaking havoc on our cities’ ability to provide public services. Recent staffing cuts to fire departments have been all over the news. Just yesterday (1-18-11), Camden NJ cut one-third of their fire department. A reduced federal budget may very well see fewer wildland firefighters than in years past. Shortfalls will not be made up at the local levels. Firefighter safety and the safety of communities have been the key points of the fire service leaders nation-wide. Warnings that more firefighters and civilians will die have had little effect on the governors, state legislatures, mayors and city councils who are cutting budgets across the board.

This leads me to my quandary.

We have taken the occasion in the recent past to blast, blow up and annihilate the firefighter safety “crusaders” for “sissifying” the fire service, because our citizens expect us to go into a burning building . (We have told them so-“we run in while you run out” of burning buildings), regardless of any other factors and it seems that we are dying to accommodate them. Clearly, this is putting the citizens first.

Then; as we have seen with the tough economic times, the talks turn to layoffs. Firefighters are going to be laid off and stations closed to save money, but response times will get longer, fires will grow, but that’s what happens when you reduce staffing. Fewer firefighters to do more means that more firefighters will die. Our fire leaders are saying so. What I see here is an argument that is putting firefighters first in this case, but it bolsters an argument, so that’s OK.

A loss of human life of any kind is unfortunate, but our out-pouring of emotion is in direct proportion with how close we were to the deceased and the reality is that; of the firefighters, you will say, “He meant so much to his family, friends, fire department and community”. We demonstrate that firefighters are indeed “worth” more to their communities than those abandoned buildings are, as they should be.

If our fire community and all who populate it are in sync with our core mission, then why do we see lawsuits that are filed by the families of firefighters? Cities and fire departments being sued for the death of a firefighter and “failure of leadership” cited as one of the causes. Yet; it is leadership who wants tighter controls on risk assessment that firefighters abhor!

I read that there is one firefighter fatality per approximately 15,000 fires in this country, but roughly 48% of all firefighter fatalities are from cardiac events. Approximately 20% are from a trauma on the fireground, so it would appear that firefighter fatalities during the course of a rescue are uncommon, which supports the idea that good risk assessments are being done.

Effecting rescues are a cornerstone of the fire service. The core mission is not in jeopardy of changing simply because some think that organizations who espouse fire service safety is pressing undo influence upon fire departments.

And if we are providing our firefighters with the knowledge and the tools to complete the mission, then are we not by design “putting them first”?

I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author, Art Goodrich, who also writes under the name ChiefReason.  They do not reflect the views and opinions of, Fire Engineering Magazine, PennWell Corporation or his dog, Chopper. Articles written by the author are protected by federal copyright and cannot be reproduced in any form.

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Comment by Art "Chief Reason" Goodrich on January 24, 2011 at 8:39am

I have described a "routine" when I prepare to write a blog. Many readers know that I listen to music when I write.

So, as a part of my blog in the future, I will include what I have in my Mp3 player as I write the blog.

I was listening to Trapt-No Apologies when I wrote "The Mission Position".

Music helps me to think, to find the right thoughts, to find the right words and to paint a vivid picture.

Hey; it works for me.


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