At my first fire I almost killed another firefighter. I was ashamed of myself, sick in the stomach because I didn’t know what I was doing and I was dangerous. Two years later I graduated with the highest academic score from the District of Columbia Fire Department Recruit Class 249, because the fire service is a life-and-death occupation with no room for error.”
That is the first paragraph in the introduction to my book I Can’t Save You, But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture published in 2015 by Premium Press America, Nashville, Tennessee. The fire was in 1970, but it took me 20 years to understand the importance of that first fire ground experience in terms of how it challenged me and inspired me to do better my entire career.
The people and events in our life are what challenge and inspire us to do better. This innate human desire is what helps us evolve and prosper as a species. We are inspired to create new science, technology, engineering, and math which results in economic, social, political, and technological change for all our cultures. But, with that change comes opportunity and danger at the individual, family, community, state, and global levels. Uncontrolled fire is one of those dangers to humans.
There have been leaders that challenge us and inspire us to do better. In 1830, Chief James Braidwood, Edinburgh Fire Service, Scotland, wrote the first book in English for the fire service on apparatus, training, and responding to fire. In the preface he also wrote “…in the hope of inducing others to give further information on the subject.” He was challenging others to write about the fire service. I think Chief Braidwood would like my book.
The idea the fire service needs to be studied, practiced, and researched at the doctoral level was first observed in 1868 by Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, Fire Chief of the London Fire Brigade, after he visited major fire departments in the United States and made several observations, including the following:
“When I was last in America, it struck me very forcibly that, although most of the chiefs were intelligent and zealous in their work; not one that I met made even a pretension to the kind of professional knowledge which I consider so essential. Indeed, one went as far as to say that the only way to learn the business of a fireman was to go to fires—a statement about as monstrous and contrary to reason as if he had said that the only way to become a surgeon would be to commence cutting off limbs without any knowledge of anatomy or of the implements required.”
Chief Shaw was correct, the fire service which is a life and death discipline must be researched, studied, and practiced at the doctoral level of professionalism. Unfortunately, to date there is no such study program in the higher education community. But, it is being worked on by the US Fire Administration Fire and Emergency Service Higher Education Committee. Who will be the first firefighters in the 21st century to complete PhDs in fire service studies? What will be their research topics?
Professor Frank Brannigan, my fire science teacher in the mid-70s, had us predict the potential impact of a jet plane hitting the World Trade Center. Our conclusion was a pancake collapse of the structure because the jet fuel would overload the fire sprinkler system and the heat would weaken the steel supports to a point of failure. Brannigan was teaching us society creates the environments we the fire service must react to when the emergency happens. We need to have a greater voice upfront if we want to reduce the fire loss of the 21st century. Just reflect on what society has asked the fire service to respond to: Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire, Chernobyl, 9/11, Station Night Club, Fukushima, Tehran High-Rise, Port of Tianjin, Grenfell Tower, 2017 California Wild Fire, and Miryang South Korea hospital fire 2018 to name a few. Every nation can readily identify their fire disaster.
During a kitchen table debate about higher education in 1976 I was arguing firefighters’ need to be become more educated. The majority said it was not needed to ride the back step of the pumper. I countered with, “If we become more educated maybe we will kill fewer firefighters.” My Lt. replied, “Firefighters have to get killed; it’s part of the job.” I have challenged that premise for 30 years and it inspired much of my fire service study, research, teaching, and writing. But, even today, in 2018, some of our colleagues believe if a firefighter is not willing to die for the job they are not real firefighters.
Who and what have challenged and inspired you? Whether you are the new recruit, the senior firefighter, an officer, or the Chief you can always find a way to do better. Tell your story, because the next question will be answered by others in the 21st century. Who and what have you challenged and inspired – to do better?