During my tenure in the fire service, I have worked for a number of fire departments that ran a fair amount of calls throughout the year. While working for these departments, the crews trained, prepared equipment, kept the fleet in top notch condition, and kept themselves in a ready-state at all times for fire runs. The time spent doing these activities definitely kept us busy throughout the day and made the shifts pass by quicker. From time to time, the shift working that particular day might go out in the community and do some fire and life-safety education, whether it be at a local school or at a community function. For the most part, this activity made up a very small part of the shift.
When the numbers are examined in-depth, most fires and fatalities from fires are caused by human behaviors, so it’s reasonable to conclude that we can influence these behaviors through fire and life-safety education.
With the amount of work that we do as a department to prepare for suppression duties — compared to prevention duties — got me to thinking. If we, the fire service, want to reduce firefighter fatalities, civilian fatalities, property damage and other collateral cost that result from fires, then why do we not invest more in fire and life-safety prevention? Fires will always be a part of our lives. History has shown us that fires will happen naturally — no matter how much your department tries to prevent them from happening. However, we can do so much more than we do now to make an impact with the amount of fire calls we run each day.
According to NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), from 2009-2013 there were 357,000 reported structure fires that resulted in 2,470 civilian fatalities across the nation. This number doesn’t include the LODDs (Line of Duty Deaths) during this time period. On average, seven people die in home fires every day in the U.S. The next question is: what’s the leading cause of home fires? According to the NFPA, the leading cause of homes fires is cooking equipment — with smoking coming in second, and heating coming in third. These numbers are unacceptable and can be reduced if more emphasis was placed on fire and life-safety prevention.
So I ask: are we, as firemen, really doing what is expected of us in keeping our communities safe? According to the numbers, there’s room for improvement! So, why are we not doing a better job of reducing the costs associated with suppression? Are we creating a culture where it’s acceptable to be reactive instead of proactive? I expect to see a wide range of answers to these questions.
When the numbers are examined in-depth, most fires and fatalities from fires are caused by human behaviors, so it’s reasonable to conclude that we can influence these behaviors through fire and life-safety education. But humans do not cause all fires — we still have those that occur in nature. These are the fire calls that we’ll always run and that keep us in business.
The costs associated with prevention activities are far less than the cost of suppression activities when comparing over-time costs, equipment use and maintenance, cost of broken or lost equipment, and possibly the loss of personnel through LODDs. The cost breakdown between these two activities is surprising, and will vary between departments. Some departments place a priority on fire and life-safety with crews in schools and community functions to spread the word of prevention. But, in my opinion, most of us are reactive when it comes to addressing target hazards in our first due areas and would rather deal with the issues when they happen.
So, with these points in mind, ask yourselves: where do I stand on prevention versus suppression? If you answer prevention, I commend you on taking the stance that will help your community stay safe. If your answer was suppression, then you can research and analyze the numbers yourself and see that the cost savings lie with prevention. The fire service can have a huge impact in reducing costs, saving lives and reducing damage. The numbers don’t lie.
Shane Gibbs is a first generation firefighter with 14 years of experience in emergency services. He resides in Upstate South Carolina with his wife Lori and two children, Blake and Lily. He holds an Associate Degree and a Bachelor’s Degree in Fire Science from Columbia Southern University. He currently serves for the Oconee County Emergency Services as the Chief Fire Marshal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864-638-4220.