Urban firefighting in the US is a venerable, honored vocation. It has earned veneration for the heroism of its practitioners over the centuries. Long before “crime” as we know it today fire terrified everyone. The poorer you were the more present the threat.
Going back to the beginnings of European settlement in America those who have stepped forward to fight fire have been courageous, selfless and daring. There is no prouder tradition in American public service. Today, firefighters and citizens alike wear hats and t-shirts with the insignia of the FDNY or BFD, to associate themselves with the honor and pride of those organizations. For what it’s worth to anyone but me, one of the people I admire most among the thousands of honest public safety servants I have met is retired Boston Fire Commissioner Leo Stapleton, a decorated “jake” and a gifted writer.
That said, however, it is probably time for the fire service to undergo the same reckoning about its mission that police have undergone so often since the establishment of modern police organizations in the mid-1800’s. Police change more rapidly than any other agent of government because police routinely engage with citizens in complex circumstances that involve life, liberty and cherished Constitutional rights. The friction forces change. The Fire Service by contrast is a technical business. It’s very perilous work but it generates little social friction. They never annoy anyone nor face the decisions of balancing competing rights that are the daily stuff of policing. Fire professionals don’t have to piss anyone off. And the work does not present anything like the invitations to misconduct that policing so abundantly provides.
Firefighting engages with chemistry and physics. They only encounter people when they save them from harm and death, often in heroic and selfless acts. People who call the cops are sometimes conflicted about the intervention. No fire victim has any mixed feelings about calling on the Fire Service. Firefighters never have felt a political compulsion for change. The public is never up in arms about the fire department. No one holds demonstrations outside the fire HQ. In big cities most folks don’t know where the building is. Firefighting has never enjoyed the crises — often involving fundamental questions of race and rights — of which police have taken advantage over the decades. I think that’s why it is so difficult for fire service leaders to see the need for a new mission.
Firefighting was organized to suppress fires. Later they adopted the prevention mission. They did a great job of selling prevention. It’s a paradigm-shifting success on a par with the marketing of 9-1-1. Today, fire prevention is accepted practice across the economy, from building developers required to install sprinklers and use fire-retardant materials to manufacturers required to make flame-resistant clothing and home furnishings to the reduced numbers of people smoking in bed. That all adds up, thankfully, to fewer fires in our cities.
Consider these numbers from a recent Boston magazine blog:
The Boston Fire Department responds to approximately 70,000 incidents per year. How many of those responses are for fires? Fewer than 6,000. (To be fair, that count is for actual fires, not false alarms, so that low percentage shouldn’t be construed as a knock on BFD.)
How about medical incidents? Those are much more prevalent — about 40-45 percent of incidents are medical in nature.
So, why are we sending out 10-25 ton trucks loaded with firefighting equipment to deal with medical calls?
Fire suppression is no longer viable as a core mission and strategy. No service or economic activity can survive with a mission that comprises 10% of its core work. That’s an inefficiency in economic terms that will grow and grow.
One could imagine a few important missions that the service might adopt.
- Advanced homeland security planning and response
- Public health campaigns and hazards elimination, including advanced enforcement of building codes, carbon emissions and other environmental regulations to reduce the plague of inner city epidemics such as asthma.
- Augmented life-saving services; EMTs with advanced life-saving skills backing up ambulances in vehicles suited for the purpose.
Consider the valuable human and infrastructure assets of a city fire service. Here is a short list:
- Deployed in decentralized service-delivery platform (stations) in every neighborhood.
- Broad regulatory and enforcement powers.
- Intelligent, highly trained life savers, highly skilled in planning for and responding to every category of disaster, man-made and acts of God.
- Centuries-old tradition of technically superior, selfless public safety service.
- Deep and abiding public trust as impartial, compassionate and honest brokers of service.
If I were king I would ask the leaders members of the fire service, with facilitation and guidance from external actors, to engage in a search for a new mission, to think about the most useful ways to deploy their very considerable assets in the service of safer communities. All options would be on the table. Certainly fire suppression and prevention would remain in the mix, but what new directions might public safety service take?