It’s just not that difficult to do the right thing
Whether fire sprinklers, social media or roadway safety, perfecting minor details will help us better serve our communities
How hard is it to just do the right thing (JDTRT)?
From the driver I see applying makeup while doing 75 on the interstate, to the police officers not wearing high-visibility vests on an interstate scene the same day that both a trooper and a firefighter were struck, to countless inappropriate social media postings, to, lastly, my observations throughout the construction of my new house – without residential sprinklers.
It’s been a week of reflection where I find myself repeating the question, “How hard is it?”
Social media: ‘Days of Our [Firefighting] Lives’
In rural Pennsylvania, someone posted a local fire chief’s lengthy admonishment to five county commissioners referencing a fire station being “out of service.” It’s clear there’s more to the story in that, “… At the outset of the disagreement between [the] Township and the station, which led to them being put out of service, the residents were told nothing would change.” The chief tells the compelling story of a 19-minute response from 7.9 miles away to a structure fire that ended up injuring two of his firefighters. The “closed” station was nine-tenth of a mile from the structure, which, if in service, would have been able to have a roughly 17-minute jump on the fire, reducing the fire damage and likely avoiding the collapse that injured firefighters.
The admonishment goes on to state that, “The Township is currently exploring the feasibility of a regional fire department.” That’s a novel concept. The post continues on, and on… and then I read the rub: “My stance is that we already have a regional department (through mutual aid) with everyone still in control of their own affairs and identity.”
Now, my purpose today is NOT an attack on Pennsylvania, those commissioners or this particular fire company whatsoever – they’re just an example made public by social media. While it’s no secret that Pennsylvania has more volunteer departments than any other state and that relationships have been aptly described as a “hot mess,” the reality is we see volunteer AND paid examples of similar hot messes across the country. I’ve said this before, and I’m acknowledging it here again – NONE of us is perfect, nor do we have ALL the perfect answers – hence, here we are, trying to make it better.
Our citizens care about ONE thing when they need us – service. When it comes down to it, our delivery of service shouldn’t be impacted by the who-controls-whose-affairs issue. SERVICE doesn’t know first dues, jurisdictional borders, fire department disagreements or political squabbles. The ONLY thing service should involve is the closest appropriate resources being sent to the scene.
Too often, we are bombarded by silly and sometimes reckless distractions that impact our delivery of service. Sometimes, as in the residential sprinkler discussion, those "distractions are keenly engineered decisions by an industry to discourage – OK, IGNORE – the positive impacts of life-saving technology. Although residential sprinklers have consistently shown that we could reduce fire deaths by 85% or more, the homebuilders’ associations have convinced builders that residential sprinklers are a bad thing. What’s more, the political lobby against sprinklers is surprisingly strong, albeit misguided from my perspective. Only two states, California and Maryland, and the District of Columbia have been able to pass universal residential sprinkler legislation.
How hard is it to see the need for more action on residential sprinklers?
According to the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA), there is some good news in that there are more than 400 local codes across the country taking different levels of approach at residential sprinklers. That’s 400 different ways of looking at it, and I submit that the Maryland, California and D.C. examples prove we could succeed with a much more manageable 51 ways of looking at sprinklers.
Perfecting minor details
In a separate social media discussion recently, a retiree friend of mine, Tom Schwartz, and I were discussing George Alston, now 85 years old and still helping out with Tom’s homeowners’ association duties. Alston was a self-described “farm boy from Virginia” who became a Westminster dog show winner. Alston would go on to be a nationally recognized handler-trainer, teaching thousands of young people annually. Five of his students went on to win “Best in Show” at the WKC Dog Show, and 15 others won their group at WKC.
In a 2018 interview, Alston tells the story of his upbringing and how he learned that, “you win by actions and not by your words.” He was relating how other people who didn’t believe in him and/or didn’t understand the industry would tease and bully him: “People would say, ‘You can’t win this, you can’t win that.’ I wasn’t supposed to win a lot of things.” He attributes his and his students’ success to the requirements of hard work, and he instilled the notion in others that, “great things are accomplished only by the perfection of minor details.”
Therein lies the lesson: Whether in our personal or professional lives, it will not be hard to accomplish great things if we can perfect the minor details. We have to stop treating our fire departments and the fire service like a new science experiment and go about the business of making things better for Grandma Jones. NIST and UL will help us when we need the science experiment help; however, we do not need NIST or UL for most of what we do day to day in terms of just doing the right thing.
Call to action: Sprinklers and more!
Whether it’s the basics of hoseline and ladder training or the complexities of politics and residential sprinkler legislation, WE hold the keys to the “minor details” noted above. Tom related his personal training mantra that emphasized his enforcement of the “minor” details in engine company training – show up, secure water supply, pull an attack line, get to the stairwell, then do it over and over again … then do it again. Performance enhancement of the minor details through repetitive training would ultimately accomplish great things on the fireground.
While we have great advocacy groups (e.g., NFSA and NFPA) working on residential sprinklers, we as fire chiefs need to embrace and champion residential sprinklers across the United States. While some are afraid of the politics of it, I’ve talked to way too many volunteer chiefs who have repeatedly admitted that they can’t bring themselves to push for sprinklers because they feel like they’ll lose membership to the reduction in “big fires.” It’s 2023. WE have to find little ways to positively influence the politics, and we cannot continue to allow the loss-of-membership-mentality – whether covertly or overtly – to be acceptable in any way shape or form. It won’t be rocket science: We KNOW what we need to know. It will be an accumulation of minor details that will combine to accomplish great things with sprinkler installations.
Similar to the breadth of sprinkler studies and available information, there are many studies on lighting and vehicle conspicuity, and we in the fire service are fortunate to have another great advocacy group – the Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) – working with fire departments and allied agencies to train and improve our on-scene posture, all the while working the politics of roadway safety at the federal level and enforcement at the local level. As fire chiefs, we can work with industry partners like ERSI and HAAS Alert to activate traffic alerting software that is already installed in most of our apparatus. And we can enforce the minor details, live high-visibility vests for ALL of our responders when operating on a roadway.
Years of research and experience shows us the right thing to do for all of these issues – distracted driving, high-visibility vests, residential sprinklers, social media and fire department organization. Where common sense doesn’t seem to have filled in, it will be through our repetitive training and in perfecting the minor details that we will end up accomplishing great things.
Truly, it just isn’t that hard to do the right thing.