Nonemergency calls that may not warrant a response can generate a great deal of bad publicity
But as is usual with the fire service, we tend to see things in black and white, and to see them with, well, let's call it enthusiasm.
The discussion got my mind churning, as these things often do, to the deeper question of why we do what we do? I won't delve into what I believe the right answer is when it comes to cat rescues.
However, how we reach these conclusions and the impact of policy decisions on safety intrigues me.
The 'why' question
If you asked the newest of recruits on my department what we do, they will (or at least had better) answer in some form that we protect lives and property. If they're really awake they might even prioritize with our lives, their lives, their property our property.
How we apply that axiom in the field, however, is how we move from the black-and-white world of opinion to the gray world of operational, and perhaps strategic, decision making.
I have never owned a dog or a cat. And although some might consider that some a moral or character flaw, it is the least of my many flaws.
I have no idea how much a cat costs, how much veterinary bills are or how much a variety of items like food and cat carriers cost. But I know people who love their cats and spend a fair amount of money on them.
Although money isn't necessarily the indicator of something's true value; you can say that the owner of a cat would consider the life of that cat worth protecting. And even if we just consider the cat to be property, the owner would likely consider it property worth protecting.
And, aren't we in the business of protecting life and property?
If we say yes to the general life and property concept, and we admit that at minimum a cat can be considered property, do we have an obligation to serve the property owner?
What if the property owner can't be found and we believe it's a stray cat? Do we put fires out only in buildings we know to be owned? In some communities abandoned homes don't receive the same level of property protection as an owned and occupied home.
Then maybe it's a question of property value. Of course we never ask how much a building is worth before we begin an attack. Yet we certainly do, or should, consider the amount of salvageable property when determining a fire suppression strategy.
But even in the standard risk assessment we'll risk some to save live and property.
The cat call
The issue, at the end of the day, is that I'm not sure that we are in a position to make the call in the field as to if we do cat rescues. We might, and should, decide the risk benefit and even value or impact of our actions, such as driving the cat farther up the tree. But the over-arching policy decision requires some real discussion.
Regardless of your department's decision, it is the act of reaching a decision based on protecting lives and property; a decision made on sound practice and policy that matters. It is, after all, the same policy process necessary to determine many issues before we are in the field when it comes to structural fire fighting.
Too many departments talk in the abstract about issues of safety with grandiose slogans and charts on the wall. But they never get into the policy decision of what we do and why we do certain things.
This lack of discussion is truly problematic. There certainly are not many, if any, cat skeletons in trees. But there may be some in our closets when it comes to safety discussion at the strategy and policy levels.
About the author
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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