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An Inconvenient Truth

Return to the August 1, 2013 issue of On Scene

As I write this column, the events in Yarnell, Ariz., are very fresh and raw. Just three days ago, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill fire. Although the loss of these young men is already fading in the media, I’m sure for most of us in the fire service, this is a memory that won’t soon fade.

As I think about Yarnell, I find myself experiencing a strange mix of emotions. There's grief for the loss of a group of fine young men. There's frustration that we continue to lose firefighters to fire. And there's anger.

That last one is the most difficult to explain, but it's definitely there. I'm angry. As I try to figure out why, I realize that it's because I've been reminded of one of the biggest inconvenient truths in the fire service.

What do I mean, "inconvenient truth?" The phrase was made famous by former Vice President Al Gore in a presentation he made about global warming that was turned into a major documentary. Gore used the phrase inconvenient truth to describe global warming. His point was that the evidence is clear that global warming is occurring and it's doing significant damage to the earth, but we don’t like hearing the message—it's an inconvenient truth—because the issue is complicated, the solutions are complex and messy and they cause us to realize that we're to blame.

Perhaps most inconveniently, the truth is that we have the ability to fix the problem, but it requires us to change our behaviors in ways we don’t want to hear about.

I’ve come to realize that firefighters dying in fires is our very own inconvenient truth in the fire service.

It's very clearly a problem all around the world. In spite of all we know about fire, in spite of all of the advances that have been made in technology, in spite of all of the advances in the science of fire prevention and suppression, in spite of the billions of dollars spent—firefighters still die.

We still dress wildland firefighters in Nomex shirts, pants, a hardhat and a pair of leather gloves and send them out with hand-tools to fight fires that are releasing energy equivalent to that of a nuclear warhead.

We dress firefighters in sophisticated turnout gear, slap a helmet on their head and SCBA on their back and send them into burning buildings we know are going to fall down.

Then we wonder why some don’t come home.

In spite of the 10 Standard Fire Orders, the 18 Watchout Situations and the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, too many firefighters still don’t come home.

To be crystal clear, this isn’t a criticism of firefighters or officers in the places where there have been firefighter deaths. I don’t know what happened in Yarnell. All I know is that another 19 firefighters are dead.

We mourn, we grieve, we study, we write reports and we publish statistics, yet we continue to lose firefighters in fires—wildland and structural.

Come on! Really? Is that the best that we can do? Is that all we’ve got?

No, of course it’s not. But I'm convinced it's our inconvenient truth. We know what the problems are but we can’t bring ourselves to change them. We know that our strategies and tactics have changed little in decades, that we've failed to find ways to apply technology to suppress fires without putting firefighters at risk. We know that we know how to build buildings that won’t fall down and kill firefighters—or that we shouldn’t send them into the buildings that will.

We can send rovers to Mars, yet we can’t stop firefighter fatalities? I don't believe it. I believe we hold the power today to stop all firefighter line-of-duty deaths.

Yes, all of them.

What we lack is the will to make it happen. It’s complicated. It's politically messy. It's expensive. We'll have to challenge and put away many traditions that many of us hold dear. And we'll have to think in new, brave ways.

Instead of rising to the challenge and doing something meaningful, we sit and watch more brave women and men give their lives each year.

I said earlier that this message isn't a criticism of the brave firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty. But it's absolutely a criticism of those of us in leadership positions at the highest level of the fire service. It's our job, our responsibility, our obligation and our duty to do what we know must be done to stop this terrible waste of lives.

I challenge each of us to pause and reflect on the loss we seem to accept as inevitable and commit to doing something to make change—real change that doesn’t just give lip service to firefighter safety, but makes real progress in eliminating firefighter line-of-duty deaths.

We know exactly what must be done. It’s our very own inconvenient truth.

Bill Metcalf, EFO, CFO, is the IAFC's first vice president; he serves as fire chief for the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook, Calif. He'll be sworn in as IAFC president at Fire-Rescue International in Chicago on August 16.

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