The More Things Change?
We have heard it before: the more things change, the more they stay the same. The well -known fire department version of this is “The fire service, one hundred plus years of tradition uninterrupted by progress,” or words to that effect. But is that really true across the board? Change may come slowly to the fire service because the main way of completing our core mission has not really changed. To paraphrase a quote from the late, great Andy Fredericks, “It’s still about dirty hose and nozzle tips.” But when you concentrate on the other parts of the job, you can see that progress, or change, has been steady.
Since I joined the fire service, PPE has changed to include upgraded 4500 psi SCBA, pants instead of long boots, hoods and gloves designed for structural fire-fighting; apparatus cabs have become enclosed and we no longer ride the back step; portable radios are available to most for use on the fire-ground and the purchasing of thermal imaging cameras is considered to be a normal operating expense. Training now normally covers subjects involving terrorism and active shooter scenarios, topics not even considered to be problems back in the 1980s and 1990s.
But for those with even a decade of service, the change has been there. Upgrades to reporting software and the increasing use of tablets at the fire scene, a move away from pagers to getting dispatched by smartphones and their ever-expanding types of applications, the use of drones, and quite unfortunately, the need for ballistic protective equipment for our first responders.
Changes in private industry will be having an impact, both positively and negatively, on how we will provide our service. New standards on smoke detectors have meant the first real change in detector technology in a generation. False alarms from cooking may be less frequent and detectors should respond better with the latest upgrades that have come out of years of testing at UL and the input from the NFPA. Lithium batteries and stored energy systems will make us think out of the box when fires involving those systems become more frequent. A recent fire in a battery storage yard in Arizona caused injuries to four firefighters, one critically. In Europe, a smoking lithium battery on a high-end BMW in an auto dealership required the vehicle to be removed from the building and submerged in a water filled tank for hours after all other attempts to extinguish the fire failed.
One of greatest impacts to our change in operations and our safety comes from the ever- increasing use of light-weight wood framing in our housing stock. While trusses and wooden I-beams have been around for awhile now, these structures were more the exception than the rule when sizing-up a building. Our districts are changing over so now entire blocks of modern structures are built like this. Smaller houses are knocked down and replaced by light-weight McMansions and our commercial districts and residential multiple dwellings may also be using light-weight metal “C” channel. If your department is still prepared to step off the apparatus to fight a fire in one of these places with the strategy and tactics designed for smaller houses with 10’x 12’ bedrooms, you need to change that. I fear that too many of us, familiar with the one or two l.75” line fires presented by two and a half story frames or Cape Cod style housing will be under the gun to perform when our usually understaffed department arrives at a working fire in a lightweight McMansion with cathedral ceilings, open floor plans, multiple connected garages, and possibly even an elevator shaft, which now takes up so much room on its plot of land that we have real concerns about exposure protection. For our safety and the well-being of our residents, we need to take a critical look at our tactics and change accordingly.
Speaking of understaffed departments, the volunteer departments were all sent volunteer availability staffing surveys back in the beginning of the year. At this point, twenty departments have responded. Please complete and send those back in to the Association as soon as possible if your department still has not done so. If you need a copy of the survey, please reach out to me through an email and I will send one to you. As always, comments are welcome, and I again invite anyone to attend our meetings to join the conversation.