What the fire service past tells us about the future

Key historical markers in the fire service are outlined in an important book, as is a path for a better volunteer firefighter future

Editor's Note: Many of you may recognize Bruce Hensler as a FireRescue1 contributor. You can read his articles and learn more about his book here.

Among other things, I am an avid reader. While I take a Kindle-Fire loaded with e-books on vacation, I still prefer paper and ink books that I can read, underscore and use for future reference. 

So it is common for me to get several books as gifts, especially from my family, on occasions such as Christmas or my birthday. 

Recently, I was given "Crucible of Fire — 19th Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service" by Bruce Hensler. The book's flap indicates that Mr. Hensler is a veteran firefighter with degrees in both fire science and public administration, and experience as both a chief fire officer and public policy analyst.

Before discussing some of the largest urban conflagrations of the 19th century and how these helped shape today's fire service, the book delves into the origins, culture and traditions of contemporary firefighting.

Risk transfer
One notable concept is that somewhere in our past, possibly when citizens began to pay salaries to firefighters. Society in the United States transferred the responsibility for fire protection and the risk associated with unsafe fire behavior from the individual to the fire service and more specifically to firefighters themselves.   

This transfer of risk, and the expectation that firefighters will go above and beyond in their duty, are reasons why we in the fire service bear the heavy burden of firefighter line of duty deaths and injuries.

Early on, the author discusses the need to retransfer this risk back to society through technologies such as automatic alarms and residential sprinklers in new occupancies and situational risk analysis in all other structures.

This risk analysis at minimum should include a 360 degree size-up that considers building construction, fire and smoke conditions, risk to occupants and an assessment of their survivability, the number of firefighters assembled, as well as the capabilities and resources available to those firefighters.

Birth of ISO
Following devastating 19th and early 20th century fires in cities such as Pittsburgh, New York, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, Baltimore, San Francisco and Portland, Maine, many fire insurance companies faced insolvency. "Crucible of Fire" describes how the fire insurance industry banned together to develop the National Board of Fire Underwriters, a forerunner to ISO. 

The NBFU developed a risk-analysis model for fire protection that graded fire departments in urban areas and dictated the number and location of fire stations and apparatus. Those cities that adhered to the NBFU model received better fire insurance ratings than those that only partially initiated those recommendations. 

Cities that ignored the model paid much higher premiums or found they could no longer obtain fire insurance at all. Either way, fire insurance companies felt preventing conflagrations through their risk-analysis model was good for their business.

Volunteers' unfair rap
Part of the NBFU model called for the consolidation of volunteer fire companies into a single citywide paid department. The NBFU rational apparently was that a paid department, under control of the city government, could provide more consistent fire protection throughout the urban area. 

With the fire service under the control of the city fathers, pressure could be exerted on the city by fire insurance carriers to more readily comply with the NBFU model.

His book asserts the tale that all volunteer fire companies were groups of undisciplined, brawling ruffians was more a myth spread by the members of NBFU than actual fact. But also that such isolated cases of dereliction were exploited to serve the purpose of bringing cities into line with NBFU's model.

Other factors that contributed to this consolidation of fire departments included the change from hand-drawn, hand-pumped engines to the use of steamers. Also, immediately following the Civil War, most young men had received some degree of disciplined military training. 

Hence, the organizational model for a city fire department switched to numbered companies and battalions commanded by lieutenants, captains and chiefs, replacing the independently named fire companies having foremen, engineers and chief engineers.

A better future
Mr. Hensler believes that the fire service should now take a fresh look at risk analysis, but also from a new perspective. First, using the 16 firefighter life safety initiatives developed in 2004 and more recently reaffirmed at the conference held in Tampa, Fla., in March. Second, through accreditation: the process of self-analysis, self-regulation, and a third party audit for validation provided by an organization such as the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. 

I would add to this mix a change in our tactics and culture that takes advantage of the ongoing research developed on both ventilation control and the indirect application of fire streams before making entry for an interior attack in well-involved structure fires.

Finally, the author calls for a resurgence in the volunteer fire service where leaders are selected on their capabilities and merit, not just their popularity; and where all volunteers are valued — men and women from all ethnicities that echo the diversity of the community they serve. 

Mr. Hensler also indicates this new generation of volunteers should be compensated in some way (stipend, expenses, 401K, etc.) for their time, training, dedication and commitment expended on behalf of their community.

All in all, "Crucible of Fire" is an enjoyable, yet at times thought provoking book that discusses the evolution of the fire service in the United States and uses our history to convey several ideas on how we might further evolve in the 21st century. As a fire service leader, it is well worth your time to read.

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