America Burning – A Belated 40th Birthday Wish

As my family and friends will tell you, even being one of the most connected guys on the planet does not result in timely birthday wishes to your loved ones.  I think it has more to do with the many spinning plates I have going rather than indifference or the constant pleading of alarms I set to remind me. Regardless, it happens.  I like to think that it is one of my many endearing but frustrating qualities.

So my belated 40th birthday wishes to the job-changing America Burning report comes as no surprise six days later (I wrote this Saturday morning for my usual Monday posting). America Burning should be mandatory reading for all firefighters. The report painted a picture of the fire problem in the United States at that time.  Some of the changes that came about as a result of its influence were the creation of the United Sates Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy and the nationwide push for smoke detectors, as well as more aggressive fire prevention efforts directed toward children.

Chief Glenn Gaines, in his Mutual Aid blog post How is America Burning 40 Years Later? reflected the other day on what this meant in our battle. We were up against increased numbers of fire fatalities and fire loss compared to other industrialized nations.  In the 70's, our cities were burning.  Our rural areas were burning.  Fire death and injury, compounded with fire loss, was significant.

My brother and I read this book when it first came out.  Understand that I was nine and he was eight then, and this is NOT light reading material.  But when my father, who left it sitting around, caught us reading it, he turned to page 10 (the picture of "Susan"). Pointing at the picture, he bluntly told us, "This is what happens when you play with fire."  

At the time, the fire death rate for children under five was three times that of the rest of the population.   The picture on page 15, a smoky silhouette of a child who died from inhalation of smoke and toxic gases, illustrated a heart-breaking reality: our most vulnerable didn't even stand a chance unless we could warn them of the danger.  The fire service leaders of that time realized we had to elevate our efforts to engage this problem.

Many of you weren't even alive when this report hit the stations (maybe even some of your parents weren't either), but it was a very graphic expose of what we faced.  Another book from that time, Dennis Smith's Report From Engine Co. 82, gave an account of the job as it existed while our ghettos were burning.  This book may have inspired more of us to become firefighters than America Burning, just as Emergency did via television, but the reason why is because of a lot of the same issues we face today.  Fighting fire suits us; we are brave, macho, sardonic souls who see a burning building and snort "Just another job." And we take care of business like it is another day at the office.  The suits and sheep see us as Gods among mere mortals.  Kids see firefighters and realize they don't want to be stuck in an office when they grow up; they want to be a real-live superhero.  The problem with this, however, is that things have changed and we need to evolve with those changes. Not only has the venue changed, but the mission has as well.

These are tough emotions to put aside, but put them aside we must.  Building construction and fire loading is significantly different.  There are more lawyers scrutinizing our every move.  And of course, every year there are attempts to shut down the National Fire Academy or to minimize the USFA budget.  The politicians are trying to squeeze every last penny out of our budgets so they can fund trips to Argentina or give the money to the banks.  There are higher priorities than saving lives and protecting property, my brothers and sisters. 

We have to fight the challenge of protecting our communities with intelligence, not with rhetoric.  The way to defeat an enemy is not by engaging one on one, but by observing for opportunities and deciding when you have the best tactical advantage.  Philosophically, that runs completely counter to our "mano y mano" psyche.  When someone comes at a firefighter with a problem, we bow up our chests and say, bring it on.  We can face down anything.  Look at yourself, boys and girls, it is absolutely true.  That is why we can continue to do more with less.  It's like a perverse little game of "You can't beat us by cutting us."  It's why we are so special.  The problem is that this is a war of attrition; in asymmetrical warfare, you either need to change your rules of engagement or plan on getting picked off one by one.

We can't keep playing the game by rules that have changed. We must be smarter than they are, and the "they" in our case isn't just fire, but the forces that align to maintain life safety as an ongoing problem: lack of smoke detectors or fire sprinklers, substandard construction practices, lack of education and human nature, and always, the constant threat of staffing and budget cuts to support our mission.

If we are sincere that we want to protect our communities and serve our fellow man, the game has to be elevated.  Hanging on to tradition is important from the aspect of honoring those who have sacrificed before us.  But just as the military studies and discusses Napoleon, Clausewitz, and Sun Tzu, modern-day warfighting tactics are applied to those precepts to conquer enemies.  We can continue to honor our predecessors' valor and heroism without engaging the enemy in the tactics of those days.

Take a moment and read through America Burning and the subsequent report, America Burning Revisited.  Understand where we really must focus our efforts.  And lets use the means at our disposal: scientific and technological advances, information sharing (especially through networking on the internet and through our local, state and National Fire Academies), and good old fashioned education.  We are a modern fighting force and we should be embracing that, rather than running away from it.

1 Comment

  • mr618 says:

    There is another book out now (“The Fires: How a Computer Formula, Big Ideas, and the Best of Intentions Burned Down New York City–and Determined the Future of Cities,” Joe Flood, available on Amazon) that also discusses that era, and the urban planning and economic modeling that lead to a good chunk of our problem back in those days. It’s a worthwhile read for those in the fire service, because in many ways, it was a precursor to what we’re going through now.

    And, yes, I suspect you’re right about “Engine 82”. That, and John Barracato’s book “Arson,” got me started on a (now) 37-year career in emergency services (spread among law enforcement, firefighting, EMS, and emergency management).

    We do have to adapt to changing realities, and unfortunately, politicians don’t subscribe to the theory that we have firefighters so cops can have heroes, too. We have to reach out to our elected officials — at all levels — and remind them that THEY work for US, not the other way around. We have some strong people on our side, like the Congressional Fire Caucus, and people like Brian Williams and the late great Hal Bruno. We have the entertainment heroes like Randy Mantooth, we have the shows like “Chicago Fire” that while lacking in realism to us, MAY just open some heretofore blind eyes in the public.
    But we also have to accept the fact that we must change, and our culture must change. Look at some of the articles on Firegeezer and Statter about arrogant, thieving, violent, racist, or otherwise unacceptable behavior from public safety “professionals.” We cannot, and should not, expect society to give us everything we ask for, if we act like a bunch of spoiled children.

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