Over the course of my 26-year career in the fire and emergency services, I’ve been fortunate to travel beyond the United States and visit colleagues in multiple fire services around the world. In every country I’ve visited, despite some outward differences, I’m struck by the similarities among firefighters; most notably, our collective ethos of “getting the job done,” no matter the obstacles, challenges, or risks. Whether those we serve call 9-1-1, 9-9-9, 1-1-9, or seek help another way, they expect firefighters to arrive swiftly, manage the situation, and fix their problem.
This “can-do” attitude is – at once – both our greatest strength, and our greatest liability. We’ve created an almost universal expectation that we will save lives and protect property under any circumstances, and in any environment; even when the odds of success are incredibly low, and the probability of firefighter injury or death is inordinately high.
In 2018, nearing the end of the second decade of the 21st Century, fire remains a problem across the globe. According to estimates by the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CTIF), civilian fire deaths ranged from 79,000 to 136,000 worldwide in 2015. By comparison, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 11,310 deaths from Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) occurred during the highly publicized 2014-2015 outbreak. I provide this comparison not to downplay the impact or continued threat of EVD, but rather to illustrate the disparities in public perception of, and governments’ response to, a novel biological hazard, versus a constant physical danger.
In economic terms, fire protection is usually seen as a public good; that is to say, it can be difficult to divide and account for costs individually, especially in urban areas where people live in close quarters. While generally accepted as a public good, fire safety is not always seen as a shared public responsibility.
When discussing the value of public fire protection services and regulations, we are often at a disadvantage due to an inability, or unwillingness, to discuss the true costs, and benefits, of a properly functioning fire safety system – including, and well beyond – the cost of provisioning fire departments or brigades. This leads to an information asymmetry where citizens and policymakers, and sometimes those of us in the fire services, don’t understand or properly value the complex relationships between various policies, policy actors, and other variables that influence fire protection outcomes in a given community.
As firefighters, we live – and die – at the intersection of forces we generally do not control.
Our work is performed at the center of a complex system that, for the vast majority of people, is out-of-sight, and out-of-mind. However, when tragedy occurs, firefighters can be seen on the front lines – fighting, and too often dying, to fix fire safety gaps created by failures of the unwilling, or the unknowing.
As I speak with ordinary citizens across my city, I’m always surprised by how little people know about their fire department; our capabilities, limitations, and the true costs/benefits of the services we provide. It’s also been my experience that many elected officials and other policymakers are similarly under-informed about how public fire protection works, much less the many complexities of the overarching fire safety system in their communities. I say this not to place blame on anyone, but as a call to action.
Whatever is happening in our immediate spheres of influence, a series of recent high-profile fire incidents around the world provides an opportunity for all of us in the fire services to initiate an open, honest, and candid public policy dialogue around fire protection in our communities. I’m not just talking about providing fire safety education or justifying operating budgets; that doesn’t go far enough. What we must do, if we truly desire to make the shift from a reactive to a proactive service, is help people understand that they are co-producers of fire safety outcomes in their homes, businesses, and neighborhoods.
Beyond educating ordinary people in our cities, towns, and villages, I also believe there is a salient need for firefighters to help businesses, investors, and firms throughout the global supply chain understand how their decisions around design, engineering, production, testing, and marketing can have life or death implications for their customers. In this era of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the fire services can, and must, help define fire as a problem that can be solved proactively by all of us, working together, and not just something to think about after yet another tragedy. As the United States Fire Administration says, and we repeat daily in Philadelphia, “Fire is Everyone’s Fight™.”
For more information, go to www.phila.gov/fire
- Brushlinsky, N.N., Ahrens, M., Sokolov, S.V., and Wagner, P. (2017) World Fire Statistics, Number 22. International Association of Fire and Rescue Services. Center of Fire Statistics.
- World Health Organization. (2018) http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/en/ Accessed 20 May 2018