Recently, I had a great opportunity to take my children to the New York State Museum in Albany. Of course there were the traditional information and displays on American history; however, there was another exhibit that I had not yet visited.
As my wife and I turned the corner of the section of the museum dedicated to the city of New York, I was visually — and almost physically struck — by a steel beam from the World Trade Center.
As we toured the area, we moved towards the remains of Engine 6, which was partially burned and mostly crushed. While looking at the display I took some time to ponder how much our industry has changed since that devastating moment in history. I wondered how we could possibly handle these changes and then begin to move forward.
Changes in our industry are inevitable. I recall hearing my grandfather, a retired fire chief arguing with my father about how SCBA were going to kill firemen. He thought equipment removed your communion with the fire and building and also allowed you to go too deeply into the flames. My father — although always respectful — likely thought the old man just didn't get it. Now, I listen to my father, who is retired, tell me that using a hood stops me from figuratively and literally feeling the fire. Let's just say I know how my father felt.
I don't need to tell you that change is difficult. One of the first European laws passed in North America was by Governour Phillip Stuyvesent, requiring the placing of water filled leather buckets in front of each house. One would think that citizens would be scared to death of a conflagration when help was literally one whole month away over the Atlantic; yet, fines needed to be established to ensure compliance.
In looking at changes in our own departments I think we'll find that those that are based on providing the most efficient methods of completing our ultimate goals and keeping us safe can also create the greatest angst. However, these new "tools" can also provide us with greater chances to succeed safely. If that is the case changes are often easier to accept.
There seems little doubt that the changes we experienced after September 11th and continue to experience will not slow in their pace. We need not embrace all change but we must be prepared to receive these with open minds. At the same time, our leaders need to keep our ultimate goals in mind and explain how their "improvements" will help ensure the achievement of those goals. They must ensure that their decisions will help achieve life safety and property conservation. If those goals are not accomplished, it is likely only change for changes sake.
As I followed my son and daughter around the corner I heard them start to babble with excitement. As I turned the corner I saw apparatus — hand drawn, horse drawn and mechanical — ranging over 150 years of technological development. As I explained to the kids how the antique systems functioned, how the firefighters had to work as a team, and how the apparatus changed with time I realized that at the heart of it, the fire service hasn't changed that much after all.
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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