“As first responders to fires, public safety and medical emergencies, disasters and terrorist acts, FDNY protects the lives and property of New York City residents and visitors. “
Los Angeles Fire Department
“It is the mission of the Los Angeles Fire Department to preserve life and property, promote public safety and foster economic growth through leadership, management and actions, as an all risk life safety response provider.”
Dallas Fire and Rescue
“Our mission is to prevent and suppress fires, educate and rescue citizens, provide emergency medical services, promote public safety and foster community relations.”
Roy City Fire Department
“Protect life and property while providing high quality, professional Emergency Medical Services and Fire Protection in a progressive, cost effective and community oriented system.”
Hamden Fire Department
The mission of the Hamden Department of Fire and Emergency Services is to protect lives and property from the adverse effects of fire, medical emergencies and exposure to dangerous conditions created either by nature or man.
A quick Google search for “Fire Department Mission Statements” produced hundreds of results. Above are the first 5 results in the order in which Google returned them. All of them, without qualification, state that it is the mission of the Department to protect life and property. It is this very issue we are going to discuss, and are we holding up our end of the bargain?
The headlines this week revealed a fire department being sued by the family of a fire victim for performing inadequately and not being prepared to respond appropriately. Many view this as lashing out or the blame game by the family. There is a different way to look at it however.
When I take off my fire hat and look at the world through my Sirus Q Public eyes, I try and think about what I expect from my fire department as a taxpayer. I try and forget the war that rages about safety, aggressiveness, EGH and saving lives.
What I decide is that I expect my fire department to fulfill their end of the bargain. Every year I vote at the town meeting to fund the budget, the contract and any capital purchases they request in the belief that these are needed so that my fire department can be ready to respond in my time of need. I expect them to respond as their mission statement suggests, to protect my life and my families and also to protect my property.
Ok, so maybe I cannot completely be objective on this issue. So I also ask my neighbors and friends what they expect. The answer is remarkably similar. Many have never read our mission statement, but their belief that the fire department will respond, put out their fire and save their live is born of years of lore and tradition that their fire department is there just for that. They see it on the news, read it in the paper and hear about it in the annual report. To most citizens, the fire department is like car insurance, an expense you rarely need but pay for because some day you just might.
Now the reality is that most people think that we have 30 firefighters on duty, not 30 firefighters total. They do not understand the problems we face; low manpower, stretched resources, lightweight construction, heavier fire loads. They only understand that they pay a lot of money to have a force available to stand between them and fire. And in their world, that is good enough.
The problem that arises from this is simple. If we don’t do anything to educate them on the problems associated with less staffing, closed stations or less training; then they have no way of knowing there might be a problem. If we don’t tell them that we will respond to the best of our ability, but not risk our lives in an unreasonable manner, then we are not being honest with them.
There is another part of this equation that is not so simple to explain. When your department is properly funded and provided for, and you have not been beating the bushes asking for more, and yet you are still not prepared to meet you obligation.
Why aren’t you prepared? Usually it is because of either a lack of leadership, allowing the department to have incomplete policies, procedures and poor training. Or it is because somewhere along the line your leadership has decided that programs like ‘Everyone Goes Home’ were actually developed as excuses for fire departments not to do their jobs. They wear these programs as a cape or shield, insulating their firefighters from the risks associated with firefighting.
(Before the knives come out, the above statement is not an anti EGH statement. It is however an indictment of those that chooses to improperly use it to justify their unpreparedness)
And as the fire service constantly goes down the path to become safer, we must realize that some of those choices may come at the expense of our 'customers', and they have the right to know that. If you don’t tell your citizens, and you opt not to enter based on the belief no one could be alive inside, not that the conditions were untenable or beyond your capabilities, then expect to answer some hard questions on the news, in the paper and maybe in court.
If your department is unable to meet the mission they are tasked with, you have the obligation to tell those you are responsible to protect that you can't. It may not prevent the uncomfortable interviews or even the lawsuit, but it sure as hell will be defense Exhibit A.
No we turn to you, the individual firefighter. If you are lucky, your department is one that has risen to the challenge it faces and provided you with the tools, training and resources to get the job done. But it isn’t just that simple.
This is a job that requires you are committed to it every time you cross the threshold. And that threshold is the door you use to enter the station. You can’t just decide that this is a serious business when you pull up with fire showing and people trapped. Every day, every shift you must prepare yourself mentally and physically to do the job at hand. This isn’t often easy, staying motivated when there is less opportunity to perform your skills can be maddening. But the alternative is unacceptable.
What is that alternative? Placing yourself in a position where you must perform and being unable to do so. Imagine the family standing on their front lawn waiting for the fire department to come save little Timmy. Imagine you failing at that task, trying to explain why you weren’t in shape or weren’t comfortable in your SCBA. Sure those may be extremes and maybe you will be able to rationalize that little Timmy never stood a chance. But somewhere in your head and gut you will know the truth.
You don’t have to become Mr. Atlas. I am the furthest thing from a gym rat but just spent the last 21 days doing the Fire Service Warrior’s Foundation Program. It was easy (to figure out, not to complete) but the challenge it put forth and the support it offered guaranteed I would finish it. And while my performance was not that of a top athlete, I can take pride in the fact that I finished and that I am in better shape to continue working out. But even if you just start eating better and increase your activity, you will be better off than you were yesterday.
The glory of the fire station is that while we don’t always have fire to practice with, we do have the tools and space to practice many of the skills we use. If you are not blessed with a crew that wants to work with you, then practice yourself. You will be surprised at how contagious it can be. Maybe you can’t convince everyone, but if you only change yourself, you are ahead of the game. If you can bring someone else along, well now you’re a force multiplier.
The Conversation You Have to Have With Yourself
Being a firefighter is much more than a social function, sticker club or bragging right, it is one of the last true callings, where we agree to put our lives on the line for the life of a fellow man.
Consider the San Bernardino Fire Department Values Statement below:
SBFD Values Statement
We will earn trust and respect through:
We protect and serve our entire community with a commitment to performance excellence.
We hold the preservation of life as our sacred duty.
We will overcome adversity through fortitude, training, and compassion for others.
We aspire to do the right thing, even when it's difficult.
We will be faithful to the needs and goals of the organization and our entire community.
We consider the needs of others before our own.
We honor our profession and we will inspire each other to maintain trust and respect.
Nowhere is it written that you must die to succeed in your job. In fact almost everything we do is geared toward making sure that doesn’t happen. The problem that occurs is when our desire to be safe overrides our commitment to do what we are expected to do by the community and our own values.
Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman in “On Combat” talks about how many police officers, although trained in the use of deadly force, have never had the conversation with themselves about whether they could actually take a life. This leads to two things: 1) Possible tentative reactions 2) Emotional issues after having to kill.
As firefighters we must have a similar conversation. We must consider the fact that at any moment we could be called upon to put our lives on the line. We must ask ourselves if we could in fact do that, knowing that we may not survive. We must also ask ourselves if we are prepared, physically and mentally to operate at the edge of the envelope.
If we don’t have that conversation, it is almost a guarantee that we will in that moment. That conversation will lead to hesitation, potentially a deadly inaction, while we try and decide. Do not confuse this with running headlong into unrealistic survival circumstances. We obviously must evaluate every situation and decide if we can perform as needed to. That is size up, and that is not this conversation.
If we have this chat and decide we are not up to the risk, then it is time to do something about that. If we decide we are not up to the challenge because of training or fitness, well those are things we can fix. And then maybe our answers change. But if we decide that we cannot place ourselves in harm’s way, no matter what the circumstances, well then it is time to consider a different line of work.
Are you meeting your obligations?
There are a lot of things to consider as you finish reading this piece. Some of what was discussed is within your control to fix. Some of it is not. The fire service is about service to our fellow man. There is a trust that must not be broken and we are the keepers of that trust.
"A New Year's Resolution Mad Lib "On Firefighting"", S.A.F.E. Firefighter
Photos courtesy of Lloyd Mitchell and Cliff Shockley
Dave LeBlanc is a Captain with the Harwich, Massachusetts Fire Department. Dave entered the Fire Service in 1986 as a Call Firefighter with the Dennis Fire Department. He worked full time during the summers in Dennis, while attending the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. In addition to his regular duties, Dave also manages the Department’s Radio system, is responsible for conducting Fire Investigations, and assists in maintaining the computers systems.