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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

How citizens can really help on the fireground

If we don't tell our citizens what to expect if cuts are made, then nobody else will

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: With responders having to force two residents to back off after they tried to tackle flames themselves at a house fire, our Editorial Advisor Chief Adam K. Thiel explains how residents can truly help aid the fire service.

Beyond recognizing the obvious challenges of dealing with well-intentioned citizens who want to "help" during a fire or emergency incident, when you watch these video clips below, consider what the other civilian bystanders are thinking. For some insight, you can hear the photographer's commentary in both clips, including, "where's the fire department?" in the first one.

We all know that response time is one of the primary (and in some cases, the only) ways fire and emergency service delivery is measured. We also know that for someone having a fire or medical emergency, no response will ever be "fast enough" unless the fire department is already onscene.

While I don't know about this department's fiscal situation, or their response time to this specific fire, I always wonder if citizens understand the response time/quality impact(s) of the budget cuts and service reductions so many departments around the nation have suffered.

Keep in mind that for most people, their only experience with fires are those contained in a fireplace, fire pit, or fire ring. Many citizens associate fires with "good times" and don't have any clue about how quickly things can go wrong during a structural, wildland, or vehicle fire.

While any trained firefighter would consider putting a garden hose on a well-involved structure a completely irrational decision, for many people — in the absence of training/education to the contrary — it makes perfect sense.

To a trained responder this looks like a very well-organized firescene. Everyone is calm, nobody appears to be freelancing, and firefighters are being assigned tasks by an easily-identified incident commander. To a bystander, however, including the guy who picked up the garden hose, it might look like the fire department isn't working hard (or fast) enough.

Addressing citizens' perceptions, and behaviors, during fire and emergency incidents is another reason fire prevention and life safety education is crucial for all fire departments; especially during difficult fiscal times.

If we don't tell our citizens what to expect, or how they can really help us (i.e., by supporting their local fire department before an incident), then nobody else will.

Stay safe!

A second video shows firefighters pushing back another man who picked up a garden hose to attack flames, then reacted angrily as he was told to stop.

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.



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