Who gets to determine the value of what we do? When financial times are tough, like they are now, the question and answers are critical to our future. The fire service is not exactly known for being proactive, and in this case it is coming back to haunt us.
There is a great deal of political finger-pointing going on across the nation. Politicians are looking for ways to look like heroes by cutting municipal expenses. Career and volunteer departments are squarely in the crosshairs of these folks who walked next to us in parades not all that long ago.
At the end of the day, if we have waited until now to express our value to the community, it may already be too late to limit the damage. But regardless, understanding and communicating why we are here, and what we will and can do, have never been more important.
Often we'll sit around the firehouse and exalt our own perceived value. But what about outside the firehouse? What about our customers?
We can split our customers into two: Mr. and Mrs. Jones and the insurance industry. Citizens have become so enraged over taxes and what they perceive to be abuses of public funds – including on occasion by the fire service — that they are calling on politicians to act. We need to ensure that we are still of value to the Jones' if we are to survive.
At every fire, the passage of time impacts our two customers, but not at the same pace or at the same level of value. The insurance industry places a nominal or numeric value based on a "good stop" where we save the structure and content. The homeowner clearly places their lives and that of their family members first; and I would argue the content of their homes next, and then the structure, all based on the ability to replace.
We can clearly look at the fact that the insurance industry doesn't mind disposable buildings as an indicator of the value they've placed on our services. The transition from room and contents is dramatically faster than 20 years ago.
The speed of the impact on the structure (actual degradation of structural members) is mind boggling. If the building is throw-away, and the insurance company doesn't mind, why do we? Because we still tell the Jones' we'll save their house even though their insurance carrier no longer cares if we do.
If we look at the time that passes during a fire, we can see the impact on citizen, content and construction all move downward, but not equally. The lack of equality is not only in the speed of the degradation, but also in the value placed on what is being destroyed.
Clearly life is at the top of the list, particularly if it is yours! Content and then the building are next. A good stop will protect all these things. But the building construction itself sometimes impedes our ability to do this.
We also need to always realize, and convey, that the downward spiral of these things never negates their value, and often their true value (or potential value) isn't noticed until they are destroyed. For instance, a family photo album, a local business that will never reopen or the home you grew up in.
I've been to several fires of late where the opportunity to save content was overlooked for desire to save a building already lost. I've been to similar fires in the same timeframe where every effort was made to salvage as much as possible within reach of doors and windows after the building clearly was damaged beyond saving.
We've taught many of our citizens to assist us in our life safety effort through EDITH drills, smoke detectors and fire prevention. But while we're blessed that this has occurred, it places an even greater emphasis on saving content and construction.
It is simply naive to say that there is no public relations value to saving content, that contents will simply be replaced by insurance. I'm not suggesting, even for a second, that we should place firefighters at a heightened risk to perform salvage.
But at the same time, we must put in the effort. If we don't, our perceived value will continue to decline.
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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