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The Butcher's Bill
by Tom LaBelle
Sponsored by Globe

The art of firefighting

Like any art, the artist is responsible for the effort in practicing and learning the craft and the tools

By Tom LaBelle

I recently had some time to spend on the West Coast of the United States. I was lucky enough to have my family come along as well. One evening, my daughter and I sat looking at the ocean as it rolled onto the beach. She commented to me about the different colors in the water and that it pretty much looked like the water in the Atlantic we see when we go on summer vacation.

We often think, as we stand in front of something that seems so grand, so larger than life, that it is unique, unexplainable or beyond our control. As humans, we desire to place confines around large scary things, to define them, dissect them and make them explainable.

There is a growing trend in the fire service to believe that fire suppression is solely a mathematical formula. We hear some claim that the right mix of SOPs or understanding of the fire dynamic will change everything. Others say that firefighting is pure man versus nature; they assure us that their ocean is unique.

I think such absolute terms are useless. As some folks say, there are only two types of people: those who see the world in black and white terms, and those who don't.

I am truly blessed that I get to spend time with men and woman who have "been down the hall" in communities large and small, all over the world. Smart people, much smarter than I, and the more I listen the more I believe that firefighting is art. It's about understanding both the dynamic that makes the wave move as well as the colors in the ocean and how to convey them on the canvas.

Trends to dissect
A recent University of Georgia study took a look at line-of-duty deaths over the past several years. The researchers were looking for trends, to dissect and analyze why we have these losses. Excuse, if you can, the cold and analytical terms, but when we dissect the ocean, we can no longer look at it as sublime. It simply becomes a number.

The authors of the study sought to look at what we do, and where we fail, in cool, hard numbers. "Firefighting is always going to be a hazardous activity, but there's a general consensus among firefighting organizations and among scientific organizations that it can be safer than it is," said study co-author David DeJoy, of the Workplace Health Group in the College of Public Health. "As a society, we ought to make the effort to make it safer."

If, and it's a big if, society chooses to make our world safer, accumulating less things made with petroleum products and designing buildings that don't seek to use less mass to hold up more weight would go a long way.

But I do believe (perhaps romantically so) that fire suppression is like an art. And like any art, the artist is responsible for the effort. Effort in practicing (training), learning the craft, the tools, and how your medium works and reacts are all requirements of the artist. If we believe that we cannot put in the effort to address these issues, and believe society will address it on our behalf, we are foolish to say the least.

I am made more and more nervous with the thought that a generation is being taught that they don't need to learn, train or study; that we will arrive and put the fire we face into some kind of computer that will generate a mathematical response; that we no longer need to protect ourselves as the wonders of science will do that for us.

Fire suppression certainly can be broken down into math. But the medium changes with each new polymer used to make carpet, clothes and couches. It changes with each new geometric effort to save trees and make buildings taller.

Good lord, it literally changes with the blowing of the wind. Brilliant scientists will do the dissecting on our behalf. They will explain it all to us as they stand on the shore, but we are the ones who go out into the ocean alone in our boats.

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

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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