This is not my grandfather’s fire service

Chronicling 50 years of change – and challenging the current generation to consider what’s next


By Daniel Shoffner

When I look up on the wall in my office and see my grandfather’s fire helmet, which hangs along with my father’s helmet and one of my old helmets, I can’t help by think of the changes that have taken place in the fire service in the years represented by those three generations of helmets.

I look at the materials and the design of those fire helmets and think about the advances in the technology that have brought our protective equipment to where we are today. I think about the various types of fires and emergency incidents that those helmets have seen and how even that has changed dramatically over the past 50 years.

Three generations of helmets line the wall. (Photo/Daniel Schoffner)
Three generations of helmets line the wall. (Photo/Daniel Schoffner)

I look at my grandfather’s Super Chieftain helmet and think that it is nothing more than a thin layer of plastic that couldn’t possibly provide much protection from high temperatures or collapsing ceilings. I notice my father’s American Sports Company contemporary-style helmet seems a lot more solid, although small compared to my traditional Cairns 1010 helmets hanging beside it.  

And today, it seems we could be on the cusp of another fire helmet revolution, as our European brothers and sisters wear much lighter and smaller fighter-pilot-style helmets. There is much debate as to whether these are more favorable to our necks and spines, due to the heavy weight of many traditional helmets. I can attest sometimes I even miss my older contemporary-style helmet I started with in the fire service when wearing my more traditional helmet for hours on end.

Critical equipment changes

Speaking of protective gear, I recall many times as a child wearing my father’s helmet, and long, cotton duck-style turnout coat, which was never washed by the way, and his old rubber hip boots. Today, I keep my sets of turnout gear sparkling clean for concerns of becoming contaminated by it, or worse our two boys getting contaminants on them. The fire service has always relied on our protective gear, protecting us. Now we know that unless properly cleaned and cared for, it does just the opposite.

Other changes I think about include the fact that my grandfather, and father, first ran a 1950s model pumper out of a barn to protect houses and farms in a rural area during the 1970s. Now that same fire district has a single property that is worth more than $325 million on the tax books – and some apparatus costs are astronomical.

My grandfather was first alerted to fires, or other calls for service, by the sound of a siren and a reliable phone tree system. I recall as a child waking up at night to the sound of my father’s plectron blaring out the address and nature of an incident. Today I rarely even carry my small voice-pager, as I have more than one application on my smartphone to alert me, provide details of the incident and provide routing to the call.

Changing incidents and increased need for training

Much has changed related to the nature of incidents as well. Structure fires, while always unpredictable, happened with more frequency in the past, and building construction types of involved structures were different as well. Old growth wood with traditional truss construction could withstand more heat and fire. Today our buildings are filled with materials made of hydrocarbons, foams, plastics, lightweight wood and other highly combustible materials, as well as being more air-tight and energy-efficient. This means our traditional tactics have had to adapt to our constantly evolving world.

I believe everyone in the fire service today would agree that it is our goal to reduce the incidence of structure fire – and that is a good thing; however, our new generation of firefighters sometimes goes years on the job with very little live-fire experience. I’ve seen this change in my 25 years in the fire service. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to respond to many working structure fires. Today, the newest generation of firefighters do not have the opportunity to get as much on-the-job training.

As I mentioned earlier, the newest generation of firefighters also faces what could be argued as more dangerous fire conditions when they do encounter them. On the other hand, while my father was in the first class of EMTs in his county, I would say the modern-day fire service has become very well adept at providing emergency medical care, as that is the predominant service that fire departments across the country provide today.

We must also train and concern ourselves with acts of mass violence or terrorism – highly uncommon 50 years ago.

Planning, performance and promotion

I also think back about how preplans were done in the past, and how it would benefit the department to have someone who could draw sketches very neatly and then create a notebook to store the catalog of preplans. The same would be said for having extensive map books on all the apparatus. Today, we can do preplans with a tablet, or even our smartphones, then download them into files that we can access in an instant versus thumbing through a book in the dark while en route to a call.

As part of my day-to-day duties in my job, I review performance and am constantly trying to determine what performance measures we can improve. While performance was, and has always been, important to the fire service, I doubt my grandfather’s generation kept up with 90th percentile travel times and turnout times. The performance measures they knew were sports stats.

In addition, as my department’s public information officer, I constantly use social media to let the community know what we are doing. While my grandfather’s generation did advertise and market fundraising events, there was no such thing as social media – and certainly no ways for social media to be used against your department in the event bystanders filmed a scene gone wrong.

A challenge: What’s next?

The fire service has come a long way and continues to evolve at a rapid pace almost daily. Our threats have changed, our tactics have changed, and in many ways, how we do our jobs has changed. The characteristics of our workforce has changed. I could go on and on about the changes.

While we can walk through some of the changes of the past 50 years and reminisce, I would challenge anyone reading this to think about what the next 50 years of the fire service will look like. What will be the new threats, the new concerns? How will the future generations do their jobs? Will there still be volunteer fire departments? Will there still be as many career firefighters or will even some firefighting functions become automated? Where will technology take us?

A lot has changed since my grandfather’s, father’s and my career began, and changes seem to come faster now. Is the future generation ready?

About the author

Daniel Shoffner is the public information officer and strategic initiatives manager for the Burlington (North Carolina) Fire Department and has 25 years of experience in the fire service. He is also a volunteer with the Mt. Hope Community Fire Department in Guilford County, North Carolina, where his father and grandfather were charter members. He has served with the Kimesville Community Fire-Rescue Department in Guilford County, as well as worked for Guilford County EMS and volunteered with Emerald Isle EMS in Carteret County, North Carolina. He holds a master’s degree in public administration concentrated in emergency management and is part of the faculty in the Fire Science and Emergency Medical Services Departments with Guilford Technical Community College.

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