There's a saying that complacency kills. And in our industry that's no surprise. Run of the mill "bread and butter" fires claim the lives of firefighters each year.
As we look at the 2010 line-of-duty death statistics, the good news is that the numbers are down for a second consecutive year. However, of the 14 firefighters who died at structure fires, six were at one- or two-family homes.
It shows we cannot be complacent at these events, but it would be nice to have some things we could take for granted. Yet, we can't. Three recent events, two being structure fires, the third being a political decision, make it clear we face dangers from unexpected locations.
The first fire occurred in my home state of New York, in a community I'm familiar with and have spent time with their fire department. The other happened in Oregon just this past week, and while I'm not familiar with the community, it could be anywhere in your home state.
In both cases a house fire was, apparently, used to cover up a brutal crime scene. Monday's incident in Medford involved a 51-year-old Oregon man who police believe stabbed his wife and their four young children and set fire to their house, killing all five victims.
Role we're expected to play I cannot even begin to fathom what causes this to happen. The additional horror in my mind is the role we are expected to play. In both cases the fire department showed up, did its duty and attempted to suppress the fire and save the victims.
In both cases, the outcome could have been, but thankfully wasn't, even more tragic with the loss of first responders.
The third case involves a recent decision in Washington DC to utilize firefighters as crime deterrents by placing them on street corners, often in areas that have been blighted by problems.
It assumes that individuals who do not place the same value on a civil society will somehow be impacted by the presence of that community's fire service.
Shootings near firefighters Unfortunately the hole in this line of thinking was laid bare when shootings happened over a 24-hour period Sunday and Monday right near the corners where these firefighters were staged.
We cannot assume that other people will act in rational ways, nor can we ever possibly be prepared for each scenario that unfolds before us.
We can, however, do our best to train to the known and probable so that when things take a wrong turn we can recognize the deviation early and react, and in some cases withdraw — such as those bread and butter fires.
But we must also remind our officials and citizens what we are, and what we are not; what we can accomplish and what we realistically can't, and realize that complacency can kill.
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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