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Who will draft the new ‘America Burning’ to guide the next 50 years of the fire service?

Fifty years after the pivotal report, there is clearly still work to be done and new challenges to address for future firefighters

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As leaders, we must be the ones pushing for advancements in our understanding of fire behavior and how our tactics impact the safety of our firefighters and our community.

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The year is 1973. “The Exorcist” was the top movie in the country. “All in the Family,” “The Waltons,” “Sanford and Sons” and “M*A*S*H” were the top-rated TV shows. Along with these popular shows, the iconic TV series “Emergency!” was in its second season.

I vividly remember the impact of “Emergency!” on my love of the fire service even as a 3-year-old. “Emergency!” was one of the first shows that featured the dedication, commitment and passion of Americas firefighters.

The fire service, like much of the world, was experiencing significant changes as the war in Vietnam was ending and the technology boom was beginning. The mission of the fire service was evolving and expanding from the traditional fire response to include EMS, hazmat response and technical rescue. The expansion of services was compounded by the volume of calls being generated by the urban sprawl of our communities. At the same time, America was experiencing significant loss of life and property due to the increase in structural fires generated from evolving fuel loads and types now commonly found in our homes and business.

Looking back, looking forward

In 1971, President Nixon sanctioned the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. This commission spent two years studying and researching the challenges that America’s fire service was experiencing. After the two-year study, the commission produced the report, “America Burning,” released in May 1973.

Fast forward 50 years. What has been the impact of the “America Burning” report? What challenges do we continue to face? What has the fire service accomplished over the last 50 years?

With the approaching 50-year anniversary of “America Burning,” I was intrigued to see how this report has impacted my career, both volunteer and paid. With my career spanning over half of the time since “America Burning” was published, I might have a different perspective on the impact generated by this report than someone younger in the service. The report provides a ton of information, and interestingly, much of the information, questions and needs outlined in the report are still pertinent today.

Making headway

Before we detail the work that still needs to be addressed, let’s look at some of the obvious accomplishments that came out of this report:

  1. Introduction of the U.S. Fire Administration
  2. Development and implementation of the National Fire Academy
  3. Development and growth of codes and code enforcement

These three directives from “America Burning” have impacted firefighter safety and our communities in immeasurable ways. However, when we look at civilian casualties and the number of working fires still occurring, it is obvious that we have more work to do.

More work to do

There are a few points highlighted in the report where we as a fire service clearly have more work to do. Specifically, the report highlights two training areas that I believe are just as critical today as they were 50 years ago – leadership and the connection of fire dynamics to our fireground tactics.

Leadership: Leadership continues to be a challenge throughout the fire service. As identified during the writing of “America Burning,” the development of our leadership is critical for the fire service to evolve and meet today’s needs and the future needs of our communities. Programs such as Executive Fire Officer and other National Fire Academy programs focused on leadership have impacted the fire service, but there continues to be a growing leadership gap in many organizations – and in many cases, the root of the issue can be found at the first-line supervisor position.

How do we grow the performance of the company officer and connect them to the 30,000-foot view of their organization? Yes, we have an NFPA standard that identifies the skills associated with Officer 1, Officer 2 and Officer 3, but are those enough? How does education play in the development of our officers? Should we have a continuing education program geared toward leadership? What about leadership internships? What lessons can we learn from the private sector on developing all leadership levels in our organization?

The challenge with many fire departments comes back to the lack of consistent leadership throughout all layers of the organization. A strong chief cannot outperform a weak first-line supervisor and vice versa. As first identified in “America Burning,” leadership is a challenge in the fire service – and one we cannot stop improving.

Fire dynamics: “America Burning” also identified the need for continued training on the modern fire environment and the impact of having a better understanding of how today’s fire impact our tactical fireground operations.

In 1973, the report posed the question: “Is it better to remove the roof or not?” How funny is that? Fifty years ago, we didn’t know when to vent. The point here is that our understanding of fire behavior has not kept pace with the current environment in which we operate. Fortunately, thanks to Steve Kerber’s team at UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute, we have more data today than ever before to help us understand the impacts of the tactics we use on the fireground. The problem: Even with all this great intel, I am amazed how many people I still meet, even some fire service leaders, who have yet to read or study the FSRI reports.

As leaders, we must be the ones pushing for advancements in our understanding of fire behavior and how our tactics impact the safety of our firefighters and our community. Implementing modern understanding and evolving our fireground tactics must become a priority for the fire service, as it was identified 50 years ago, and we still have work to do.

What does the future hold?

We don’t know what the fire service will look like 50 years from now. We have “America Burning” and other documents to study from the past. However, it will take the courage of leaders to develop the reports that guide us into the next 50 years. Training, science, technology and leadership will be critical as the risks faced by our communities continue to change.

Who will be those impactful leaders who find the solutions to the challenges identified in “America Burning”? Will it be you? Or will firefighters of the future look back at a 100-year-old report wondering why they’re facing the same challenges from 1973 and 2023?

Jason Caughey is the fire chief of the Laramie County Fire Authority in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and an adjunct professor for Laramie County Community College, where he teaches on the principles of fire behavior. Prior to arriving in Cheyenne in 2011, he was the fire chief of Gore Hill Fire Rescue in Great Falls, Montana. He also spent 10 years working for the Montana Fire Services Training School as a regional instructor and regional training manager for the state of Montana. Caughey has been an active member in the “Kill the Flashover” project, led by Joe Starnes. He is also a current technical member of the UL Positive Pressure test committee and a lead instructor for the Ottawa Project “Knowledge to Practice.” Caughey has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is working on his master’s degree in public administration. He is currently attending the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer program. Connect with Caughey on LinkedIn or via email.

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