I have spent the past couple of decades working in some form of public safety and now my career takes me more and more into the realm of emergency management. One thing that I have learned is that the fire service has gotten pretty good at preparing for “known” events or threats. Each year in South Carolina — and in many other states, I’m sure — emergency managers have a statewide hurricane exercise. There is a statewide earthquake drill, a wildfire seminar and a winter storm seminar. It seems like for every season we take time to prepare for what may lay ahead.
We make these preparations because we know that, should these events occur, the likelihood of those we serve being seriously injured or killed is increased during these peak seasons. We also know that the impact of a negative outcome on a community could last for years or even generations. We prepare because we know that we need to be on the top of our game. Our citizens depend on it.
What if we could prepare for a “home fire season” or a “fatal fire” season? Would we do it? Why wouldn’t we? We prepare for every other possible emergency management scenario, but so few of us do anything to prepare for home or fatal fire season. At this point, some of you might be saying, “Hey, that sounds great. It would be awesome if there was such a season so that we would know when to ramp up our prevention efforts.”
Some of you have already figured out my angle and have realized that there IS a home fire season and there IS a fire fatality season. Home fires and fatal fires both increase significantly in almost every jurisdiction during the winter months — check your own stats. The time frame between December and March is typically the deadliest for home fires. There IS a fatal fire season. That season, my friends, is upon us. What are you doing to get ready?
I recently saw a social media post along the lines of:
“Always expect fire”
“Always expect victims”
These are excellent ways to serve our citizens and they make good tactical sense. I would argue however that a piece of the puzzle is missing. If we want to really serve the citizens, if we really want to save their lives, why wouldn’t we do just one thing each shift to help prevent a fire from ever occurring. Citizens are not killed by fires that never occur. This too makes good tactical sense. Fire prevention makes good tactical sense if we all agree that our primary goal is to save lives and protect property. Yes, fires will still occur. Yes, we need to train for those fires — every shift. BUT if we take 30 minutes out of each shift to work on a prevention effort, what have we lost? What might we have gained?
Recently in South Carolina a citizen died in a home fire. Her home was less than 500 feet from a fire station. This fire station was staffed with a three-person engine crew that was in quarters. Sadly, the resident was most likely dead before the fire showed itself enough for the neighbor to take notice. Statistics from South Carolina’s fire data are starting to paint the picture that if a fire is going to be fatal, many times the victim is dead before the first engine ever arrives. This seems to be true in paid departments as well as volunteer and combination departments. That’s not to say that rescues of people who would have otherwise died don’t occur. They most certainly do, but it seems that many of the people who die in home fires were likely dead before we ever got there. No amount of training, no amount of area familiarization, no staffing plan, no pay structure would have made a difference to many of the people who lost their lives to fire in 2015. Are you dedicated to saving civilian and firefighter lives?
“Train everyday — This will save lives”
“Always expect fire — This will save lives”
“Always expect victims — This will save lives”
“Promote fire prevention every day. For many, this is the ONLY thing that will save lives”
Tim Wojcik works in the Community Risk Reduction section of South Carolina State Fire. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.