When we lose our ‘why,’ it’s typically because we’ve lost connection to our roots
One simple solution: Get back in touch with the community, physical and metaphorically
It doesn’t take much to realize that the fire service – some individuals but much more our collective community – needs to refocus on our ultimate why. The why that drives us to do what we do day in and day out. The why that compels us to accept the risks we face. The why that connects us to our communities. But before we can examine our current why, we must consider our roots.
In 1730, a fire that spread from a ship to warehouses along a Philadelphia wharf area prompted Benjamin Franklin to form what would eventually become the Union Fire Company. With Franklin determined to limit insured losses, the first brigade of 26 volunteers came together. Each volunteer was tasked to bring six buckets for water and two linen bags for salvage to a scene. As additional members joined, additional brigades were formed.
As firefighting equipment matured, the first purchases came from fines levied against volunteers who missed monthly meetings. (And you think your company’s participation rules are tough!) Volunteers joined out of a noble sense of purpose and community – they were the only force standing between their own neighborhoods burning down, or not. That was their why, and these are the roots of our why today.
THAT WAS NEARLY 300 YEARS AGO, CHIEF
Fast-forward nearly 300 years, and I argue that there are too many instances where we have forgotten our roots and lost our why. I do not pin this on one department or one cause, nor will I place blame in any one direction. I will, however, contend that the roots of our purpose should remain the same roots we seek to grow and support today. And no, I’m not talking about “going back to the way it used to be.” And no, I’m not suggesting every fire truck should be steam, diesel or electric. And no, I am not talking about demographics or politics.
The roots I’m referring to relate our purpose – that we as a fire service are actually protecting our own, our neighbors’ and our communities’ investments and lives, not only extinguishing fires but also collecting belongings and learning from scenes to prevent reoccurrences.
Yes, there are many certifications needed, there’s a lot of construction activity, and there’s exponentially more of just about everything as it compares to that original brigade of 26 volunteers with six buckets and two salvage sacks. There’s more of us, too.
KNOW YOUR FIRST DUE
The roots for me as a company officer in the 1990s should be no different than the roots for a company officer in 2023. Yes, there is a significant difference in the tools company officers can bring to the table today; however, the tools should still be taking care of feeding the same roots – operations and area.
The company officer today doesn’t have any other tools to throw a ground ladder than I had in 1990 or that Benjamin Franklin had in 1730. It still takes people in a manual function to move and raise/lower the ladder. Sure, you may (or may not) have a mechanical advantage to get it off your unit as manufacturers seek to answer common injury points, but it still takes the same people to throw the same ground ladders. Similarly, the company officer today doesn’t have any more tools to advance a hoseline that I had in 1990. Franklin actually didn’t have to worry about hoses; he just had to worry about lifting buckets until hose delivery was designed.
To take advantage of these hose and ladder training opportunities, you should still be out in your communities, throwing the ladders, stretching the hoselines and surveying your occupancies to plan for the job we do.
PREPLANNING THEN AND NOW
Going back to 1730 and before, the notion of preplanning was an insurance policy. That was their “preplan.” As those insured losses burned, insurers (including Benjamin Franklin) looked for ways to minimize their insured losses. This reduce-insured-loss mindset led to so many things, things we take for granted today. In code cases, it affects us where the building industry makes tradeoffs (i.e., lighter-weight construction for sprinkler protection). If we don’t know that, what are we getting ourselves into? Therin lies the basis for the target for my call to refocus on our why.
In 1990, electronic solutions for most fire departments were still just a wish, if not a figment of the imagination. There were few resources outside of the shelves of our local or state training academies. For me, preplans were a pen and paper process, with books of paper preplans kept on every fire engine. We preplanned any target hazard building, multi-family building, critical infrastructure facilities, large structures, high-occupancy locations, nursing homes, etc.
The manual preplan process required a community interface that has waned in many department’s cultures. Our crew – mind you, only a daytime, Monday through Friday paid crew – was required to schedule, inspect, document, record and share everything we could about the occupancies we preplanned. The volunteer crews filled in where they could and participated with us when they were available.
Empowered by county ordinance, as a crew we scheduled visits with building owners, walked every inch of buildings, looked at construction methods, talked about tactical adjustments, and considered potential scenarios. We learned where fire department connections were, especially where there was overnight life hazard. We were highly cognizant about the difference between sprinkler and standpipe connections and about the methods to control systems in an emergency.
We knew where every exit was located and ensured storage was properly stowed. Cooking hood systems, freezer lockers, storerooms, electric control rooms, after-hours contact information – you name it, when we went through a preplan process, we knew what we needed to know, to be as prepared as we could be for should that place threaten to burn down. And when there was a fire, we made sure that a swift after-action review captured the salient points that every firefighter needed to know about the incident and the building condition.
THE LACK OF “TOUCH”
The 2023 officer has many more electronic tools available to them today to gather much of the information I’ve just gone over – software on a tablet or in the CAD, the internet to gather owner information, intranet to find building plans through the municipal planning database. While crews depend on digital systems to catalog information, it is my observation that the “touch” for firefighting crews is completely different: “We’re too busy,” “they won’t let us in,” “they don’t trust us” are the refrains. I hear you, and I’ve heard it before.
Regardless of that refrain, there should NEVER be an excuse for a local fire station being unaware of a residential high-rise fire department connection location. There should NEVER be an excuse for local firefighters being unaware of what buildings are or are not protected or for them to be unaware of any facet of the protective systems operations, including shutting them down. There should NEVER be an excuse of why an officer and crew are unaware that they’re about to enter a 200-plus-year-old building that was previously damaged by fire, especially a fire that had been extinguished by the same department.
I know there are many facets of the politics with building/zoning agencies, and the politics associated may NOT be in your control. Those roadblocks certainly should NOT mean you’re wringing your hands and walking away from the need to get out into the community.
I agree that our call volumes and call types have increased, I agree construction is going up like gangbusters, and I agree that EMS is now about 80% of what the fire service is experiencing. I also know that, like many stations across the country, the station for which I once served as the daytime officer now has eight to 10 firefighters working around the clock on four shifts, and still has some volunteer participation. Can’t we spread the work around? Maybe we need to shift some of our priorities. Now there’s a novel concept!
FEED YOUR ROOTS
A culture that accepts these deficiencies at any level is a culture whose roots have stopped growing – their metaphorical tree will die if these roots don’t grow again. Get back out into your communities and put your eyes, feet and hands on the buildings in your community. Knock on doors, make phone calls, get to know your community again, beyond your typical public education campaigns. Get back to feeding your roots. It starts with building a community, not just filling a spot on the roster. No excuses!