Recently, while discussing the state of the fire service today with a friend (you know who you are), he suggested I read America Burning: The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control (PDF). He specifically referred me to chapter 3, "Are There Other Ways?" and suggested that it's good reading for today's fire service.
For those of you who don't remember, America Burning was published in 1973 and was commissioned by then-President Richard Nixon. It assessed the state of the fire service in the United States and ultimately led to the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Information Reporting System (NFIRS).
On the one hand, we've come a long way in the 41 years since the report was published. Our understanding of the fire problem and the technology we bring to bear to fight it have improved dramatically. But in many ways, we don't appear to have made very much progress at all. Perhaps nowhere in the report is our lack of progress more apparent than in chapter 3.
Chapter 3 starts with a summary of our basic tactical response to a report of fire and asks how we can get better. It points out that the easy solution is to simply increase departmental budgets by 20, 30 or 40%. But the Commission also recognized that an increase in budget to do more of the same old thing won't necessarily result in a similar reduction in fire loss. They then make the very astute observation that perhaps we should consider alternative approaches to our normal "throw more money at it" solution.
Most of the discussion that follows is profound and just as relevant today as it was 41 years ago (except for the few paragraphs on women in the fire service which are, frankly, embarrassing). The first recommendation is "that local government make fire prevention at least equal to suppression in the planning of fire department priorities."
Imagine that! We've known for more than four decades that we should be placing more of an emphasis on prevention, yet the relative proportion of expenditures on suppression versus prevention is still seriously out of whack.
The report then follows with an excellent discussion about our system of volunteer firefighting. In 1973, the Commission estimated that the nation's volunteer firefighters were providing a public service worth at least $4.5 billion annually (in 1973 dollars). The Commission recognized that we're obligated to do all we can to support the volunteer system because it's highly unlikely that anyone could come up with the money to replace it.
A number of alternatives are discussed, including shifting to combination departments and even considering consolidated police-fire departments. Another suggestion is to freeze fire suppression expenditures at the then-current level and spend any new increased money on building in automatic detection and suppression systems. There's a brief discussion of private contracting for fire protection and a significant discussion about the benefits of a regionalized approach to fire protection.
Perhaps the most significant discussion is the need for communities to engage in a serious process of analysis and risk/benefit assessment. Resist the urge to keep doing the same old thing and give serious consideration to new approaches and solutions. In fact, the Commission recommends that every local fire department prepare a master plan, based on an individual community assessment that serves as the basis for future growth and improvement. The recommendation states that any grants for equipment and training should only go to departments that have gone through the assessment and planning process. We've clearly gotten a bit off track here.
As I reviewed America Burning, I was struck by how far we've come and at the same time how little has truly changed. We've made tremendous progress, but at the same time in many ways we remain mired in the deep ruts of the past.
I recommend that all of today's fire service leaders—both present and future—take the time to read America Burning. Let's recommit to the action plan that was laid down 41 years ago.
The answer to the question in the title is yes, there are clearly other ways that we can address the fire problem. Most importantly, we can do so much more than what has been accomplished already if we're just willing to open our minds to the alternatives.
Chief William R. Metcalf, EFO, CFO
President and Chairman of the Board