Over the course of my almost 30 year career in the fire and emergency services, I have had the opportunity – as a chief fire officer, conference speaker, crisis manager, consultant, and Eisenhower Fellow – to work across the United States and spend time with firefighters in more than a dozen nations around the globe.
As a result of this unexpected (and ongoing) journey, I’m frequently asked to comment on the similarities and differences between fire departments in various countries. My short answer to this question is quite simple, “firefighters are different in all unimportant respects.”
From Philadelphia to Frankfurt, Chicago to Cape Town, Toronto to Tokyo, Westminster to Warsaw, and everywhere in-between; we speak diverse languages, use different terms, and wear many (or no) uniforms, but there is one constant that joins all of us together – firefighters the world over are universally willing to sacrifice their own lives protecting people they have never met.
Firefighters are, quite literally, the beating heart at the center of a complex, dynamic, and often misunderstood fire safety “system” where we directly control almost nothing, while willingly accepting the awesome responsibility of being called upon to fix everything.
When the architect’s folly is finally revealed, the carefully engineered plans fail, the policy prescriptions are deemed “not fit for purpose”, and the politicians or executives who actually decide how much to invest in fire protection are nowhere to be found, the people we serve call 9-1-1, 1-1-2, 1-1-9, 9-9-9, or run to their local firehouse and ask us for help.
Invariably – riding an engine, pump, appliance, ladder, pickup truck, motorbike, or even on foot – our sister and brother firefighters, from Boston to Beirut, respond.
From a technical standpoint, the basic firefighting tactics, tools, and techniques we use to accomplish our shared mission are quite similar, regardless of the hemisphere in which they are being deployed; a hose is a hose, a nozzle is a nozzle, a ladder is a ladder, and a pump is a pump.
But firefighters everywhere also depend on something even more fundamental, and ever more difficult to maintain, than any of their appliances and equipment: TRUST.
The trust of those with whom we work, the trust of those we regulate or advise, the trust of those who decide our budgets, and most importantly – the trust of those we serve. Without trust, we simply cannot accomplish our mission; even with the best kit, the finest training, and the most expensive gear.
Trust is our most vital, and precious, asset. For most of my career, North American firefighters and emergency medical providers have benefited from extraordinarily high levels of public trust. Even now, with overall trust in government at very low levels, as evidenced by the continued strife in many cities worldwide, firefighters are generally respected, or even revered. As a further example, several top-ranked and long-running American network television shows are focused on the lives and work of firefighters (fictional and otherwise).
In my own city, which did not escape the civil unrest of the past few months, the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) was – for the second time in four years – rated by our residents as the most trusted agency of local government from 2018-2019. Notwithstanding these accolades, the level of trust we enjoy, and that remains fundamental to both our mission, and our firefighters’ safety, is always at risk.
We know from current events – and the experiences of our international colleagues through the years – that trust can be tenuous, fleeting, and difficult to sustain; especially in a time when a single errant tweet can literally set a city aflame. Moreover, it is one thing to be appreciated, and quite another to be completely trusted with protecting lives and property before, during, and after a fire.
For the fire service to remain effective in all facets of our mission, particularly with the continued acceleration of global urbanization, trust in firefighters’ competence, commitment, expertise, and honesty must extend from every corner of our neighborhoods, towns, and cities – throughout the halls of our governments, and even into the boardrooms of private firms.
Dedication and self-sacrifice are no longer enough; we must build, maintain, enhance, or in some cases rebuild TRUST in every quarter of our communities. Embracing this foundational aspect of our mission – which can never be taken for granted – requires a renewed level of engagement, new ways of thinking, and a fresh appreciation of the many variables affecting fire safety across the globe.
We must learn new languages, beyond the lingua franca of our shared profession or our specific national dialects; we must become skilled in the languages of economics, public administration, urban planning, public policy, business administration, and sociology, to name just a few.
Firefighters are rational actors, in an ill-defined system that is inherently irrational. Simply recognizing, or lamenting, that fact is not enough; it is time to embrace the changing characteristics of our environment, and adapt.
Flexibility and adjusting to constantly shifting circumstances are firefighters’ core competencies – from North Philadelphia to the Netherlands. We CAN do this…and we must!
Note – Coincidentally, I am sending this missive after spending ten hours on scene of a 6-alarm fire in “North Philly;” where 300 plus PFD firefighters, paramedics, support personnel, and partner agencies battled a major blaze and saved millions of dollars of property, with no loss of life and just one minor injury.