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2011: A year of reflection, honor and service

Local firefighters and EMS personnel played a critical role, and in many cases the singular role, in responding to and mitigating the impact of disasters

By Chief Glenn Gaines
Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator

As we look back on 2011, three stories come to mind. They are the natural disasters that struck several regions of the United States and Japan, the 10-year anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on our country, and the loss of Hal Bruno.

The number of disasters that impacted our country was unprecedented. These disasters ran the gambit from major wildfires in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, floods in the central U.S. and northeast, tornadoes in the southeast and northeast, to Hurricane Irene that played havoc with virtually all states along the east coast.

One condition held true in all these natural disasters. Local firefighters and EMS personnel played a critical role, and in many cases the singular role, in responding to and mitigating the impact of those disasters on the communities they serve.

The simple fact is the U.S. fire and EMS service is the only public sector service that is prepared and capable of taking the lead in saving lives in the direct path of these types of incidents.

Our partners in law enforcement respond and support the efforts of fire and EMS; however, in the vast majority of the incidents, it is fire and EMS who are the point of the spear for homeland security.

Fire still kills
Another truth is that fire kills more Americans every year than all natural disasters combined. This continued to be the case in 2011. We are looking at around 2,700 to 2,900 deaths from unwanted fires this year.

Approximately 85 percent of these deaths occurred in the home. Smoking, cooking hazards, electrical and heating devices continue to be the lead causes of these deaths. I believe these numbers will begin to rise in the future due in part to the aging of the baby boomer population and the fact that all legacy furniture is for the most part gone and replaced with furnishings filled with polyurethane foam and covered with combustible materials.

Residential sprinklers are the answer to reducing this ominous condition along with laws that would require the covering of combustible furnishing materials with noncombustible material. Firefighters must stand up for these two important initiatives.

As we paid tribute to those Americans who perished in the terrorist attacks on our country on September 11, 2001, it occurred to me that I have a responsibility to the legacy of honor, bravery, and commitment to duty left to us by the firefighters, law enforcement personnel and other first responders who perished as a result of the attack.

We owe them and their families our undying respect and admiration. We must learn from what they taught us and share those lessons with the next generation of fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel.

Lessons from 9/11
One of the many lessons learned from the September 11 terrorist incident is that having access to real-time intelligence information is critical to ensuring that we are in the best possible position to prepare for, respond to, and recover from such events.

The challenge for the fire service is to nurture a position of trust with law enforcement that would allow us to receive intelligence information before, during and after a terrorist attack. This coordination is critical for our appropriate, safe, and efficient response.

Yes, Osama Bin Laden is gone, but the threat is not. International terrorism continues to be a threat and domestic terrorists continue to exist among us.

We lost a great leader and fire service spokesperson in 2011. Hal Bruno set the standard for the scholarly professional who was our advocate and retained a dignity that demanded respect from all levels of society.

This was a complex man who served in a variety of important roles for ABC News and the print media for many years. He loved the fire service and led us in many ways, including Chairman of the Board of Directors for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

His booming voice demanded attention and his mastery of the English language allowed him to explain the firefighter’s plight with such elegance. The silence will have a deafening impact on our profession.

I know that many will wonder why I haven’t talked about the recession and its impact on our profession. I will let others dwell on that subject. I just encourage all of you to stay true to the profession.

Hold to high standards. Economize where you can and see if you can say yes to taking on something that others have said no to doing with regard to providing services to our citizens. I wish you a safe, healthy and successful 2012.

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