The most dangerous era to be a firefighter - Is there a ‘perfect storm’ brewing?


CarolinaFireJournal - Dave Murphy
Dave Murphy
04/23/2012 -

By definition, a “perfect storm” is an expression that describes an event where a rare combination of circumstances will aggravate a situation drastically. In my opinion, there has never been a more dangerous era in which to be an American firefighter. I am basing these thoughts upon my observations only and I am sure that many pertinent factors will be overlooked. The storm has been brewing for some time now, the following are just a few of the most obvious impending storm system indicators.

Lightweight Construction

Look around at what is being built in your community. Have you or your company taken the time to actually do a walk through of some of these structures during preconstruction? I am not a structural engineer, but you do not have to be a brain surgeon to know what happens to gusset plates and glue when you apply fire to them. 

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A general synopsis regarding compartmental fire testing studies indicates that a well-involved, unimpeded fire in new residential construction will begin to initiate structural failure somewhere in the 12 to 17 minute range. When one considers the discovery time until the 911 call, dispatch, response time and attack line deployment, I would imagine the time/temperature bell curve regarding fire growth is usually on average at, or very near, peak intensity about the time firefighters actually make entry into the structure, which leads into my next point.

The “John Wayne” attitude is alive and well. In reality, how many survivors will be viable in the pre-mentioned scenario? We all say it — “risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, risk nothing to save nothing” but we really don’t mean it do we? That’s because we are all conditioned/expected to make entry regardless of the perceived benefit or potential loss. In the end, modern builders/manufacturers produce disposable houses and cars, — firefighters, however, are not disposable.

Lack of Actual Firefighting Experience

Many seasoned fire officers are gradually retiring and leaving departments, leaving less “combat experienced” officers in their place. Due to many proactive iniatives (arson investigation, fire prevention, codes enforcement, plans review), there are not as many fires as there once were “back in the good old days.” As a result of these proactive efforts, learning on the job firefighting has been minimized and replaced with other less glamorous duties. The bottom line — the Incident Commander has to be the one with the most experience, intelligence and courage in order to “pull the pit bulls back” when it is necessary to do so.

Lack of Support and Dwindling Resources

With few exceptions, most municipal fire departments are doing more with less. City/county budgets are dealing with a drastic decline in revenues generated due to the lingering economic downturn (less payroll taxes) and depreciation of property values (lower tax bills). A nationwide apathetic attitude is also starting to prevail with nearly 8.3 percent of our nations’ people out of work, and a great many others struggling just to make ends meet. Politicians are frantically juggling numbers/services leaving most fire chiefs playing the hand they are dealt to the best of their ability. As a result, stations close, rigs ride short, equipment replacement and other needs often go on the back burner. Cost of living raises are a distant memory, which ultimately affects departmental morale. All of these factors inevitably add strain to an already stressed system.

While it is easy to point out the problems, it is a bit tougher to actually provide the solutions. In reality, there is no “magic bullet.” We must understand what is being built in our communities and be an active participant in the adoption and enforcement of pro-active fire codes and plans review. The average firefighter could give a hoot less about fire codes — “that’s not my job” — but your job does entail going into that house of cards held together mostly by glue if or when it does become a raging inferno.

There is nothing wrong with being aggressive; there is something wrong with being stupid, which brings us back to training/education.

We must continue to evolve and develop safe, effective strategies in order to prepare intelligent, well prepared and safe operating firefighters/fire officers. Networking is a wonderful tool in this quest, don’t reinvent the wheel, there are many excellent instructors willing to share their materials with you. With Wi-Fi, there are literally hundreds of educational opportunities accessible at most any fire station. As for politicians, we must be able to speak intelligently with them and pre-educate them in order to maintain our fair share of the budget allocations.

While I do not possess a crystal ball, I do believe the economy will eventually stabilize, although never to the artificially created point where it finally faltered. Fire department service demands will continue to increase as the baby boomer generation continues to age. This high need category, coupled with the on-going influx of immigrants and the expanding welfare system mentality will surely overwhelm any emergency services provider that does not adequately plan for it.

Positive change begins with the individual. As a department, we simply must work smarter — this can only be achieved by being proactive, which is fostered by quality training and higher education.

The storm clouds are brewing; will you and your department be prepared for the inevitable Perfect Storm?

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