Each of us who puts on a fire service uniform, badge, takes the name firefighter or earns the title fireman makes a vow. Even though the words of that vow are written differently or even just written in our hearts, they are vows nonetheless. Webster's dictionary defines the word vow as "a solemn promise or assertion; specifically: one by which a person is bound to an act, service, or condition."
We are in fact bound to protect life and property, and although often stated of late, it bears repeating — the promise is in that order, life and then property. Regardless of our vows to safe life and property, we are quickly changing our views on our own life hazards.
Today's fire service is more cognizant of our own safety then our predecessors. I often talk about listening to my grandfather argue his belief that self contained breathing apparatus was dangerous because it removed you from your relationship with the fire, and allowed you too deep into it. And today my father remains unsure of the fact that I wear a hood, for many of the same reasons. If my children decide to go down the roads their predecessors choose, I'm sure I'll have concerns about what they do, however the basic role won’t likely change. If you're in a burning building, a firefighter will come to rescue you.
Change needed Even though that basic tenet has been, is and will remain part of our vow, to suggest the vow has or should remain unchanged is simply not true and unrealistic. We've matured enough in our own industry to go from a blood and guts view to a professional service, as it should be. A service to citizens based on training, competency, sufficient resources and as always firefighters. But still, it has changed and sometimes that can be confusing to those same citizens we serve.
If you don't believe there is an increase in fire load, just ask your mom or dad if you have more crap then they had when they were your age.
The vows we, or anyone, makes must be understood by all parties or someone will certainly feel slighted or wronged. Just as vows must be understood by everyone, they usually involve actions or promises by more than one party as well. We need only look at statements made by many citizens or elected officials to realize that their understanding of the vow is starting to veer from many in the fire service. Staffing cuts, equipment reductions and station closures, are some common elements of that change. We also see more questioning of strategies, the furor that arises from unsaved pets/animals and even recently the rerouting of fire apparatus to keep neighbors happy in Denver!
When did this disconnect occur, when was the vow broken or perceived to be so, who broke their vow? The citizens we protect were the first to stray (although likely unknowingly) and like a scorned spouse we are left to deal with the topsy turvey world brought about by broken vows. You may ask what their vow was to us and how they broke it? Simply put, construction techniques and fire loads. Without realizing it, the citizens we protect were lulled into breaking their vow with lower standards of fire protection (cheaper construction) in buildings and our all encompassing need for "stuff" that increases the incredible fire load found in today's residential property.
I mentioned earlier my father and grandfather and the views they expressed at our dinning room table. The buildings they faced before their retirement were predominantly class 3 ordinary constructions and class 5 wood frames so prominent in the Northeastern United States. But the components of these buildings, particularly the class 5, did not involve lightweight load bearing components such as trusses, laminated wooden I beams and the like. Fire loads were nowhere near what they are today. If you don't believe there is an increase in fire load, just ask your mom or dad if you have more crap then they had when they were your age. If they answer yes, you've got a higher fire load!
So we've changed our strategies, not our vows. But these changes must be placed in the context the citizens' vows have changed, even if they changed them unwittingly and first. If we continue to leave our citizens and their elected officials in the dark regarding their choices, they will always think we changed first. And worse, they will wonder if we'll keep our vows.
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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