‘Struggling to survive’? Debating opinion vs. reality in fire protection services

Comparing urban vs. rural department realities while highlighting a simple service that stops fire in its tracks

I was elated recently that 10 people showed up at one of our mobile home fires.

Putting that in perspective, at my previous department – Prince George’s County (Maryland) Fire Department – I’d have 10 vehicles show up at the same mobile home fire.

Really putting that memory into perspective, I was elated until I counted the vehicles it took to get those 10 people there – seven. Seven vehicles to get 10 people to the scene.

The fire service is struggling to survive daily with or without expensive fire trucks. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)
The fire service is struggling to survive daily with or without expensive fire trucks. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Before we dive into our differences and dysfunctionalities, let’s be clear here: Fires burn the same in Nevada and Maine as they do in Idaho and Florida. The differences that do exist are the environment, staff, equipment and local codes.

Consider those factors in the context of these scenarios:

  • A 20-year-old house that has been on fire for five minutes in a mid-size city likely already has a fire engine sitting out front.
  • A fire in the same 20-year-old house that has been on fire for five minutes in a rural area likely hasn’t even been reported yet, and once it does, it will likely be 20 minutes or more before an apparatus shows up.
  • A fire in the same 20-year-old house in Prince George’s County, Maryland, has activated fire sprinklers, and the fire is all but out before the fire department is even called.

Differences between urban and rural departments

Not everyone can have a firehouse in their backyard, and cash-strapped communities across the country continue to struggle to provide fire protection services.

The pure Ben Franklin model of free community fire protection, focused on the theory of minimizing insurance losses, misses the reality mark in a modern society. We are holding onto the notion of nobleness as the main reason to keep things the way they were, instead of focusing on improvements in overall safety and community fire protection.

And it’s not just differences between urban and rural; our states have divergent fire service philosophies, too. Even though we have national and consensus standards and the omni-present NFPA 101: Life Safety Code, there are WIDE disparities in training and development requirements, capabilities and approaches across all 50 states, and even the counties and municipalities within those states.

Here are some differences I’ve witnessed between fire protection services in urban centers and rural corners of cities and states I’ve worked in and visited over the years:

Urban: There’s one or two chiefs on the scene who are outside doing what chiefs should do while the 20 other firefighters do what they do.

Rural: There might be two chiefs on the scene, but both of them are part of 2-in/2-out because there’s only four people there … for a long time.

Urban: The first engine lays a line from the hydrant 300 feet away or stretches one to the hydrant across the street and begins fire attack.

Rural: The first engine runs out of water waiting for the next unit to get there; there are no hydrants.

Urban: The first engine crew attacks the seat of the garage fire, the first truck searches and opens the ceilings, the second engine goes above and extinguishes the fire that extended to the attic, the first chief sets up.

Rural: The fire is through the roof, because there is no second engine, no first truck, and the chief is on the line.

Urban: Grant opportunities are captured by a grants team/office of three, four or more people with tons of research time and fiscal resources to account for match requirements, planned ahead of time in budgets hundreds of millions of dollars flush.

Rural: The chief or one interested/motivated person does the research and navigates the administrative FEMA minutia; there is no pre-budgeting for match-money. Good luck!

Fire protection opinion vs. reality

There are differences of opinion, then there are differences of reality.

With each election, appointment, retirement and replacement of the chief, we change course and direction, which typically perpetuates past successes with forward momentum. But it takes a lot more than just winning the election or raising your right hand to be effective leaders. We must take critical looks at the processes we have as we implement organizational “vision,” concentrating on the outcomes we actually see.  

Consider these fire service opinions vs. realities:

Opinion: The fire station should be large enough to accommodate the level of service your community expects.

Reality: The fire station will be the size you can afford.

Opinion: We’ll attract more firefighters when we buy the biggest fire truck with the shiniest bling, that carries six or more firefighters.

Reality: We are struggling to survive daily with or without expensive fire trucks. There are tons of worthy projects that have been funded through billions of dollars in grant awards ($315 million so far this year alone), yet we continue to find ourselves “struggling to survive.” It does no good to spend $800,000 on fire trucks when we can’t put ANYBODY on them 50% of the time we’re toned out. Wouldn’t we have been better to expend even half of that money on sprinkler installations in at-risk communities?

Opinion: Communities can’t afford new firefighters, new fire trucks or new fire stations.

Reality: Communities can certainly afford the legislation required for sprinkler installations.

My opinion: We are struggling to hold onto a fire service paradigm and philosophy designed and espoused over 200 years ago. It CAN’T just be about firefighters, fire trucks and fire stations. We must twist the narrative.

Reality: Community risk reduction through shared sprinkler installation costs WILL reduce injuries, deaths and dollar losses.

At literally a couple of dollars per square foot, the expense to buyers pales in comparison to both the expense of insurance and that of fire repairs/response required after a significant fire.

Betting on fire sprinklers

Go ahead, roll the dice AGAIN if you want. The gamble has proven time after time that your chances of survival increase by over 85% with residential sprinklers installed – odds I’ll take the first time, any day.

Not an opinion – FACT!

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