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Watering Liberty's Tree: Combatting Complacency in the Fire Service

The traditions of the fire service are part of what make it so attractive as a career and calling: From the red door on the fire station to green lights on the right (starboard) side of the Chicago area light bars and various other nautical elements (Turrentine 2004) to terms such as fire plug and box alarm.

We’re readily willing to sacrifice time, talents and even personal safety for the communities we serve, running into disasters when everyone else is running out. Firefighters have a rich history of service and family that’s integral to who we are and how we build a successful department.

Along with these important traditions, though, come tendencies to hold on to tried-and-true fire suppression techniques we learned from the academy 20 years ago. Worse yet, we hold onto ideas that were passed on by word of mouth from previous generations of firefighters without ensuring that these facts have a solid connection to any formal training, scientific research, current consensus standards or even generally accepted practice across the profession.

A prime example of this is the fact that spalling concrete always represents the presence of accelerants and therefore a set fire. Another is the tendency for first-due units to kick doors and ventilate windows upon arriving on scene, regardless of coordination with suppression lines and rescue crews and without consideration of what the sudden introduction of oxygen will do to flow path and fire dynamics.

In the past decade or so, we’ve come to realize that some traditions need to change because involved materials and technical understanding of fire and engineering have changed—and are continually changing. We can’t be professionally complacent and rest on what we learned third-hand or what the academy taught us 20 years ago.

In a letter written around the time of the drafting of the Constitution, President Thomas Jefferson famously said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” (Jefferson, 1787).

Jefferson—like most of the Founders—believed in the idea that governments were necessary for a functional society, but only insofar as they established basic rights and ensured liberty for the people.

He wrote this well-known quotation just as the finishing touches were being put on the Constitution and only a decade after the American Revolution took the colonists from monarchy to the more democratic by the people, for the people system. The Constitution wasn’t drafted until 1787 because the original form of American government—known as the Articles of Confederation (1781)—didn’t provide a solid-enough foundation to lead the new states and the nation needed a new way to govern itself.

In changing the governing structure during the fall of 1787, the young American nation basically had a second revolution—a revolution in its thinking about government—just 10 years after winning its independence.

This second revolution wasn’t a complete rejection of everything the colonies had fought for and what made them historically distinct as a nation. Jefferson quipped that revolution of some type was needed every 20 years or so to overcome a complacency on the part of the society or the government would lose sight of its purpose.

This is especially true when the people get set in their ways and misperceive the facts and circumstances of their political environment—lethargic is the word Jefferson uses for those who don’t pay attention to the changing facts around them and become complacent (Jefferson, 1787).

Do we have a tendency to be lethargic in the fire service? Do we sometimes misperceive the facts due to inattention, such as not going to training or not keeping up with current developments in health, safety, engineering and fire dynamics?

As leaders in the fire service, chiefs and company officers can’t allow this complacency to set in. The safety of our communities, our ability to adapt to changing service needs and even the safety of our fellow firefighters and ourselves depend on a current and complete understanding of what we face.

The role we play in the community is critical. We’re the emergency service agency of first (and last) resort in most circumstances. Our areas of expertise have evolved beyond simply putting water on fire. We’re now called to be involved in hazardous materials (CBRNE), homeland security, community paramedicine, building and even long-term community-development resiliency planning. Skill sets range from chemistry and engineering to medicine and social psychology. For a chief, we add in human-resource law, finance and political science.

To be successful leaders, we must do our best to stay current in the evolution of our profession or we’ll get left behind professionally and potentially put our communities and fellow firefighters at needless risk.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day of fire administration. But leading change and adapting to new demands (or even coming to a new understanding of old, long-standing demands) requires current and continual intellectual engagement of the many areas of responsibility we now have. Our tactics could stand some regular reevaluation—and if necessary, a little revolution every 20 years or so.

Just as the liberty tree must be refreshed from time to time, so must our understanding of the technical aspects of how we do the job. Attend classes at the National Fire Academy or your state academy. We need to take tactical classes covering such topics as new approaches to managing inflow of air into an oxygen-limited fire environment (not just the chief-level quasi-golf outing networking stuff).

We need to engage with IAFC committees and follow the discussions on IAFC KnowledgeNet. A good way to keep up with some of the more technical developments (NIST, university research, CDC, etc.) is through engaging the IAFC’s Firefighter Safety Through Advanced Research (FSTAR) website, where you can find current research summaries and full-text analyses of cutting edge issues we face. Keeping up with such developments is critical to maintaining the effectiveness of our fire suppression, EMS, hazmat and prevention programs as systems and materials change.

It’s also critical to keeping our firefighters safe.

The liberty tree of the fire service needs to be watered, from time to time, to avoid the tyranny of complacency. Tradition is a wonderful part of our calling as firefighters. Not taking advantage of research and training that can help keep us safe and do our jobs better should not be a part of that tradition.

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