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A Shared History
by Bruce Hensler

How firefighters became more than heroes

A cultural turning point for our country was also the point when firefighters went from being heroes to professionals

By Bruce Hensler

It is interesting to learn what those who have gone before us thought about fire fighting, firefighters, and fire departments. What others think about us validates what we do and serves to solidify our tradition.

Fire departments have long maintained organizational histories. However, above the level of municipal fire department, we lack a deep appreciation for the larger history of fire fighting and the influence of externalities on how firefighters fulfill their mission.

The comments below are pulled from long-forgotten trade journals resting in library archives; although the words have not been changed, parts have been omitted for brevity. Odd as it may seem, these ideas are once again relevant or at least familiar, as history does repeat itself.

The establishment
"Core cities, fighting off physical as well as economic and social deterioration, are finding a citizen revolt against higher taxes, pitted against demands for more services and demands for higher wages. In too many instances in recent years the taxpayers are revolting against increased taxes and particularly at the local level, government is at the crossroad with all signals on 'RED.'

"The influx of these many under-educated, under-trained, and unskilled into the core cities and coupled with their accompanying poor health and a deteriorating housing supply, poses a monumental social as well as an economic crisis."

These are the comments of John H. Polker, St. Louis comptroller, made at an IAFC conference and subsequently published in Fire Command's October 1970 issue. The title of his presentation was The Image of the Firefighter — Is It Changing?

The point of his presentation appears to be that the fire service was coming to be seen as a part of the "the establishment" by the disenfranchised of America. In Polker's view, fire departments as part of "the establishment" needed to see the people they protect in a new way.

Fire departments needed to develop a new relationship with those they protect, in his words, "a selling job and public relations responsibility to break down the barriers of distrust and disdain." He challenged his audience of fire chiefs to prove to the citizenry that firefighters are highly productive servants who are aware of their responsibility and stand ready to play an important role in the lives of those they protect.

Volunteer survival guide
Can the Volunteers Survive the 70s? This question must have certainly provoked comments when it was presented in a Fire Command article from July 1970 by Robert G. Kahrmaan, Jr., director of Fire Science Technology Program at Jersey City State College.

Kahrmann pointed out an interesting research fact that appears in public management literature of the era, specifically that combination fire departments are a cost-effective and efficient delivery platform for municipal fire protection.

He held that volunteers must at least do the following or die off.

They must get alcohol out of the firehouse, appoint on merit rather than elect fire department line officers, embrace mutual-aid agreements, audit finances, keep records, follow ISO and NFPA guidelines, and transition to mixed staffing as the community needs evolve. Some 40 years later and some volunteer firehouses still permit alcohol use in the station. (As this column is written, a controversy is brewing in Lodi, N.J. between the volunteers and the mayor who has banned alcohol in the fire station, mostly concerned with the potential of underage drinking as a liability issue and hopefully a moral issue as well.)

What to expect of firefighters
"Did you ever hear of a proposed integration of the police and fire departments because policemen did not have enough to do? When the firemen's work drops to 48 hours and actual work takes only one-third of the time, or 16 hours a week, firemen had better watch out for a taxpayer revolt.

"I have heard it said hundreds of times: 'Fireman are not engaged in active work. They sit around waiting for a fire.' If that is true, no wonder there is frustration, commotion, unrest at the firehouse.

"That must be true if one hires an intelligent, healthy person, gives him minimal hose-handling training and then says, 'Sit around and wait until we need you.' That cannot work unless one hires retarded recruits."

The speaker went on to say that he expected the fire chief and the fire department to display more than minimum performance and in fact expected "the pursuit of excellence." The man behind it was B.H. Cruce, city manager of Greeley, Colo., speaking at the NFPA fall conference in 1969. The speech appeared in the May 1970 Fire Journal.

No place for professional heroes
The last presentation given at the 1969 NFPA fall conference, The Challenges Facing the Fire Service, also appeared in the May 1970 Fire Journal. The piece offers an inside look at what it takes to build a rural-suburban fire service delivery system cost-effectively and efficiently.

"We have only one excuse for being — we've got to do the job better and for less, or we won't be here tomorrow. None of our municipal or government employers is hiring us for love.

"Our outmoded psychology is hurting us. At $300 per month, we and our men could afford to be professional heroes. At $300 a month, the mayor could afford to let us spend two hours a day fighting a fire, two hours a day training, two hours a day cleaning things up, and the rest of the day standing around waiting to serve.

"At $700 to $1,000 a month, I submit, they cannot afford professional heroes. They want technicians; they want students; they want steady production of work. Our taxpayers are beginning to figure out that a $30,000 fire truck with $2,000 worth of chrome on it in many cases doesn't fight any more fire than a $20,000 truck.

"Let's earn our keep. Let's have the courage to innovate, and the courage to make occasional mistakes."

Of the man who made these remarks it was said that he was the only fire chief in the country who could turn up at a fire with six fire trucks and four men. That fire chief was Lou Witzman, president of Rural/Metropolitan Fire Protection Company in Scottsdale, Ariz.
 
The fire service has changed
In September we remember and pay tribute to those who died on 9/11 and reflect on what that day represents in history. But in doing that we also owe something to remembering events of lesser scale, as well as those everyday things we do and say that will touch the people that follow us.

In the 1970, the idea that firefighters needed to change to keep in step with a changing society was evolving. It would grow into a new view on what it means to be a professional firefighter and what traits a professional fire department should exemplify.

The notion of professionalism even included the idea that volunteer fire departments should act as if they were a career organization. In time, it was deemed possible that a volunteer fire service could, if it chose to, fight fires with the coordination of, and as aggressively as, a paid department and to function in its relationship with the people it protected as a model public-safety agency.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, few fire departments, dominated then by white males, understood that an era was coming to an end and that fostering and maintaining relationships with the public would arise.

By the end of the 1970s the fire service was actively recruiting minorities and women.

As the number of actual fires began to slowly decline, the fire service expanded its mission more broadly taking on hazardous materials incident response and providing emergency medical services. It also began to appreciate that it must play a stronger role in fire safety education and fire prevention.

In just more than 40 years, the fire service is now commonly the fire-rescue service and there is more diversity in the ranks and an acceptance of a new mission and responsibility. 
 

About the author

Bruce Hensler joined the fire service in 1976 and studied fire science. While in college, he boarded fulltime in a suburban Pittsburgh volunteer fire department protecting high-value commercial properties gaining practical experience in firefighting and rescue work. He served as a career firefighter for the McKeesport Fire Department before moving to Maine where he worked in several departments holding career positions as assistant fire chief and fire chief. He went on to the state's firefighter training program from which he retired as deputy director of operations in 2007. He holds a graduate degree in public administration and a certificate in geographic information systems. His interest in the fire service and its history encompasses the human and geographic aspects of responding to emergencies and disasters. He is an active volunteer firefighter and is currently working on a second book about urban volunteer firefighters in the late twentieth-century. He lives in Pennsylvania and is the author of Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service published in 2011 by Potomac Books. More information about his book is available at www.potomacbooksinc.com/books or at his Web site www.brucehensler.com. Bruce.Hensler@FireRescue1.com.



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