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How will 2015 look to future fire service historians?

Trying to predict the future of the fire service is inviting failure, unless you hold the knowledge and understanding of where we are today and how we got here

Looking backward to reflect on what has happened and in turn project outward to predict what may happen raises many questions. It requires knowledge and an understanding of what is most likely to be most important in some time to come.

If I set out to predict what will happen in 2015, you can only be certain that I’ll get it mostly wrong and what I get right will be pure luck.

If I were doing this in 1914 instead of today, would I have accurately predicted the end of horse-drawn fire apparatus and steam fire engines in American cities within 10 years or so? I might have if I really understood the inherent potential of the internal combustion engine.

If I were doing this in 1974, would I have predicted that by the 1990s fires would generally be on the decline and that many a firefighter’s time on duty would be spent on emergency medical calls? If I understood the health care industry, demographics, fire statistics, and public budget policy I might have, though I doubt I am that clever.

When I joined the fire service in January 1976 I never imagined the fire service we have today, not the job itself, not the apparatus, and not the equipment. I lacked the knowledge and understanding to imagine the future.

I wanted to know everything I could about firefighting and I’m still learning and trying to understand. The important thing for me is not simply knowing, but also understanding why things are the way they are and that desire is what motivates me to study fire history.

Our shared history
We each have a sense of personal history as part of our family history. But those facts do not stand alone because while things happen to us, things are happening around us.

We tend to think of history as a series dates on a timeline of events, births, deaths, highpoints in the discovery of this, the end of that, and wars over one thing or another. The things we see and live through we have firsthand knowledge of, thus allowing us to rationalize or understand it all.

Most fire departments have a date that establishes their beginning. The timeline of a department’s history is marked by the coming and going of chiefs, apparatus, stations, line-of-duty deaths, and usually a great fire or two.

All firefighters and all fire departments taken together form the fire service. The collective fire service also shares a larger history, one that encompasses not only what happens locally, but the evolution of a public service delivered over a period of time.

The public’s admiration for the fire service is a direct result of firefighters having fought to save lives and property in thousands of fires over several hundred years. More than anything else, that proves that what firefighters do every day on every call is important now and into the future.

Safe bet, things change
On Dec. 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air, manned flight at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. From 1903 to 1914, the leaders in the development of aviation saw the potential for military uses of airplanes.

But the top generals and admirals didn’t share that vision, they saw only limited application. War changed their parochial views. The military’s brass is often accused of fighting the last war.

The same applies to some in the fire service as well. They mask their limited vision with the veil of tradition. I cannot predict what may happen in the fire service, next year or five or 10 years down the road, but I can imagine a future based on what I know and understand.

There are some things that happen slowly over time and we may miss them because of distractions. The fire service we have today, strictly by the numbers, is largely made up of white males. Taking for granted that America’s demographics will shift, we should expect to see those changes reflected in the fire service over the long haul.

There is a blitz of media and public attention on police departments. The fire service should take note of this and how it evolved. For different reasons, we could someday see public scrutiny placed on fire departments followed by calls for radical changes.

It is just something to think about.

Last year and beyond
Looking back over 2014 several things stand out. There were instances of experienced and well-equipped firefighters becoming trapped when fire conditions suddenly changed. There were collisions of fire apparatus with other vehicles. Occasionally firefighters got into hot water doing some not-so-smart things from misusing social media to embezzlement.

Firefighters also did some really great things in the line of duty and sometimes a step beyond.

Technology has played and will continue to play a role in future fire service delivery. As for the standout story for 2014, it is the research into the dynamics of the modern structure fire and the consequent controversy and inevitable debate.

There is a difference between what I’d like to see in the next year and what I expect to happen. I’d like to see firefighters wear seatbelts all the time while riding in cars, trucks and fire apparatus.

I’d like to see more firefighters consider the boundaries of ethical behavior both on and off duty. I’d like to see the research into fire dynamics continue and evolve so that the firefighting tactics also evolve.

The merger of science and craft in firefighting forms the basis of our occupational knowledge. Research, experiment, testing, practice and reevaluation form the basis of our understanding of the occupation.

Understanding and knowledge come only with persistence and determination. If you can take one thing along with you in 2015, it is that all knowledge is good and that understanding it is even better.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.

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