How 'fire porn' hurts the fire service

Until prevention becomes as much of a turn on as fire porn, we will not fulfill our mission to protect lives and property


Do you prefer prevention or porn?

For the record, I'm not talking about the kind of porn that will get you fired if you watch it at work. I'm referencing "fire porn."

You know, the exciting stuff you see on the cover of almost every fire service trade publication, YouTube, and most fire and emergency services websites: structures on fire, helmets melting, gear smoking, lots of destruction.

Let's face it, it sells.

This was recently confirmed by a friend who's an editor of one of those publications; he said that he would gladly replace those photos with prevention images if I can assure him that he won't lose subscribers.

To his defense, we all know that if we start replacing fire porn with photos of firefighters installing smoke alarms or car seats, conducting pre-fire plans or company inspections, or even teaching a CPR class, the fire service would go into shock.

I mean really, who wants to watch a video about how to conduct risk assessment in their local communities? Boring!

We know we would rather watch a dash cam or amateur video of a structure fire and debate strategy and tactics and talk about how that department should have been more aggressive.

The paradox
A paradox is a statement that contains conflicting ideas or concepts. It's similar to having a policy to have only the best gear money can buy, but showing up with only enough cash for what's on sale.

"To protect lives and property" is a paradox in the fire service. Our words say one thing, but our actions say otherwise.

Most in the fire service believe that only occurs when dispatched at the point where lives and property are being or are already lost. It's a culture that has evolved for decades. Ah, the good old "culture" word. How did that happen?

Culture evolves when values and behaviors become the situational norm. When uninterrupted, those norms have validation from where the values came from.

This is the process, or cycle, of cultural development. In other words, if nothing changes, we can plan on hearing, "It's always been done this way."

Marketing the job
So here we are at the crossroads. Can we break this cycle? Can we change the culture of embracing our mission? Can we change behaviors and values to prevent the paradox from occurring?

As I was attending the National Volunteer Fire Council conference in South Carolina, I saw the paradox in action. While grabbing dinner, I ran into a young man covered in fire tattoos and sporting an FDNY T-shirt.

I simply asked him if he was in the brotherhood and where he worked. He was a volunteer who had just recently relocated from Pennsylvania and was looking for a career position in the Myrtle Beach area.

We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me of his volunteer companies in Pennsylvania and how his department was used for mutual aid because they were very aggressive. I asked if he had paid any attention to the NIST studies on thermal attack.

The young man said no. So I dug a little deeper and asked if he has ever read the book "Fire Command" by Chief Brunacini. He replied with, "Who?"

I also asked if he had read either one of the "America Burning" publications. "No."

So, I wished him well in his endeavors, gave him my card and headed back to my hotel.

The old guard
It rang clear to me that this talented young man may be headed for the paradox like so many others in our profession. Visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads have been replaced with the grandeur of flames through the roof or pushing out the windows, making an aggressive interior attack, or dragging a victim out.

I know, there are those who say that's what we get paid to do. I've seen and heard it said by some of the "fire porn stars" that the fire service only exists for suppression.  

I've even had an operations chief tell me that we get paid to die for property just like we do for people.

I do not believe that to be true.

There is a time and place for that. We need to be tactically trained and prepared to do that as needed and when called upon.

We need the bravery to carrying on the tradition of saving lives, as so many before us who didn't have the luxury of the resources and technology we have today.

Action items
But, if we say we that our motto is to protect lives and property, then we need to embrace that from the prevention standpoint, make it a priority and find a way to make it sexy.

The fire service leadership needs to step up. It needs to happen at the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and in every state and local fire service organization.

That also means changing the fire porn we watch. Slowly, we need to begin assimilating our fire service members by adding more community risk reduction and prevention presentations to conference shows; by adding more columns, articles, and photos to our trade publications; and by training new members that preventing the incident from occurring is our foremost mission — that we respond when failure in prevention has occurred.

We need those in the fire service to be "turned on" by prevention.

The other paradox
Another component of this paradox is we have to get water on it as quickly as we can, and I agree. Don't fire sprinklers help accomplish that?

Yet, the fire service has not fully embrace residential fire sprinklers. So where does the "protect lives and property" play into this?

In fact, we have even allowed the public to play into the paradox because we haven't invested time to educate them to the importance of residential fire sprinklers. Hence, we find the public, in many cases, are in opposition and aligned with the home-builders' associations.

Although the total number of fires are decreasing, those we have are burning differently due to construction and contents. And, we have many other things we respond to.

It's not sexy
We should address injury prevention, health-related issues, environmental issues that we are the first to arrive, and so much more. But our attention in prevention seemingly only applies to fire, which I understand is low frequency but high risk.

I know that I will draw criticism from this column. It's not popular, it's not sexy, and it goes against what so many joined our profession to do because of the way we have marketed the job.

Please don't misinterpret my message. I support suppression. But shouldn't that suppression begin through prevention and not just when destruction is under way?

How long can we exist in the paradox and how can we transition from "fire porn stars" to "fire and injury prevention stars?"

The bigger question is why do we have to choose? Why can't we be both?

Be safe.

About the author

Billy D. Hayes has served as the Director of Public Information and Community Affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department and as the Chief of Fire Services for the City of Riverdale, Ga., and is a past-president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program. He additionally served as the Advocate Program Manager for the Everyone Goes Home campaign through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, where he was also a State and Region IV Advocate. Billy frequently writes and speaks on the topics of firefighter safety and fire prevention. In this column series, he will be outlining the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives – and what they mean for you and your department. He can be contacted via e-mail at Billy.Hayes@firerescue1.com.

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