According to Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. The contraband fire made humans just like the gods. Zeus was so angry he had Prometheus chained to a mountain and sent an eagle to feed on his liver every day. His liver would re-grow each night only to be consumed the next day. We humans were also condemned by Zeus to never completely control fire so it would destroy our homes and crops and lives. Fire has been, is, and will continue to be part of the human culture. Hercules freed Prometheus, but who will free us from the curse of fire?
In 2020, I will celebrate my 50th year as part of the fire service community. Much has changed, mostly for the better, but the fire service is still playing catch-up to the global fire culture related to social, political, economic, and technological changes because we humans are stuck on the “Manual Fire Protection Model.”
When a fire breaks out in a building or land people call the fire department to come fix the problem. They expect us to save their lives, property and treasures. Firefighters have done this willing and with great courage from the beginning of time. I too have firsthand experience with this. It is exciting and rewarding. The fire service is a calling. But manual fire protection cannot be the primary model for the 21st century because the fire service cannot keep up with the fire risk that has been built into our future. The problem is visible today.
The Grenfell, Kemerovo, Paradise, Sichuan, Notre Dame and Dhaka fires are examples of our future fire culture paradigm. In other words, we only see fire as a problem after the disaster. There is lots of finger pointing, media talk, litigation, reports, tinkering with building/fire codes, bankruptcies and government bailouts. But fire quickly fades into old news and we don’t think about it anymore; until the next fire. This pattern was repeated throughout the 20th century and is continuing in the 21st century. The modernization of the world, demand for a better standard of living, increased population density and changing climate can only increase the fire risk.
Fire culture is the result of interrelated social, political, economic and technological decisions being driven by multiple stakeholders with divergent motivation. When cheaper, faster and lighter result in more profit in the built environment fire safety becomes a minor factor in the decision making process. The fall back implied decision is “We can always call the fire department when all else fails.”
We have a different cultural paradigm when it comes to air travel. After just two 737 Max aircraft crashed the entire fleet of planes is still grounded. We do know how to make our built environment safe … when we choose. When the plane is crashing there is no one to call for help and there are no parachutes on commercial aircraft. So, when it comes to air travel death is unacceptable.
What can the fire service do to influence the 21st century fire culture? A good place to begin is to change our own fire culture paradigm to “I can’t save you and I don’t want to die trying.” Until the fire service decides being injured or killed is not part of the job society will continue to let firefighters bare the risks of fire. When we all stop seeing fire death as an act of God and see it as human caused we will be one step closer to fixing the problem.
The fire service must have the courage to lead the paradigm shift to an “Automatic Fire Protection Model” for the 21st century. No other stakeholder group has the vested interest we do. If firefighters’ dying from cancer is unacceptable, remember the fire created the pathogens in the first place. Firefighters do have significant influence in the world because people like and trust us; firefighters are heroes, but that does not change the fire culture for the better.
We have the knowledge Prometheus gave us. If we can make fire we can learn to control fire. Hercules cannot set us free from the fire curse. 21st century firefighting must be based on an “Automatic Fire Protection Model!”