[Ed. note: I originally posted this on the Fire Chief Magazine web site. The magazine recently ceased operation, so I am posting it here.]
The tried and true way to handle an uncontrolled fire is a rapid response with enough firefighters and apparatus to stop it from growing to a conflagration. But uncontrolled fires have become fewer and farther between. The trend to lower fire frequencies has increased the perception that structural fire risk is lower and fire departments should therefore downsize. Consequently, more political leaders are willing to cut fire department budgets and hope that their city somehow "lucks out" when an uncontrolled fire occurs.
However, it is only a matter of time until such a fire does occur in a city where staff reductions have left the fire department incapable of stopping it. Those affected by the loss will want to know why their fire department failed to provide the level of life and property safety that they expected. They will ask, "Where are the firefighters?" But then, of course, it will be too late.
Fire chiefs and the rank-and-file will lay the problem at the feet of short-sighted politicians. But it is my opinion that the fire service shares some of the responsibility for this dilemma. First off, improved fire codes require fire sprinklers in more buildings. As a result, more fires are under control when firefighters arrive, and fewer fire companies are needed to handle such incidents. Public education has also made a change. Most adults today began learning about fire-safe behavior in grade school, and that knowledge has contributed to fewer fire incidents.
Secondly, fire departments insist on using the same staffing model today that was created in the 19th century, when manual suppression was the only way to avoid conflagrations. But in an era where there are fewer fire incidents and fewer major fires, more and more people consider the traditional way of staffing fire departments as somehow outmoded.
I disagree with the perception that fewer fires mean lower fire risk. But I also realize that perception is reality, and that particular perception is growing among the general public and our political leaders. I believe that we must find ways to reduce the costs of public fire protection while maintaining enough manual suppression capability for major incidents.
To illustrate the problem facing the fire service, let me describe what happened to another industry that ignored the need to adapt to changing conditions.
In the 1950's, the California sardine fishing industry collapsed. Annual yields had been steadily decreasing since the 1930's. Observers noted that over-fishing was causing the decline, and that maintaining the status quo was not sustainable. But the sardine industry preferred the status quo and nothing changed. The refusal to face the real problem kept up to the very end. When sardines finally disappeared from the California coast, someone asked, "Where are the sardines?" The writer John Steinbeck witnessed the decline and wrote about it in the book titled "Cannery Row." Steinbeck's reply to the question was, "Where are the sardines? They're all in cans." In other words, the problem was obvious, but no one paid heed until it was too late.
There are parallels between the sardine industry and fire chiefs who maintain that we can sustain current fire department staffing methods. For one, the sardine industry kept hoping for a miracle that would restore the sardines. Fire chiefs are also looking for a miracle – namely an economic recovery that allows them to rehire laid-off firefighters and reopen stations. The other parallel is that the sardine fishermen were victims of their own success. The better they got at fishing and the bigger their haul per trip, the fewer the sardines that were left to reproduce. Fire departments have effectively used code enforcement and public education to mitigate fire risk and reduce the number of fires. Now those successes are creating pressure to cut back on manual suppression forces.
Are fire chiefs ignoring the obvious? I believe so. When I read news reports about more laid-off firefighters and closed stations, comments from members of the public reveal their perception that fire departments cost too much. With fewer fire calls and fewer notable fires, more members of the general public are seeing firefighters as "sitting around all day" and unproductive. The return of economic boom times will not change that perception. As cities build new structures and use fire codes to make remodeled buildings safer, the trend toward fewer fire emergencies and uncontrolled fires will continue. The current methods of staffing fire departments are not sustainable.
I believe that cost-effective solutions are at hand, and I discuss some of them in my post titled "Sustainable Fire Protection." I know that change is difficult, and that new staffing models will be challenging. However, fire departments need to change now, lest they continue to suffer staff reductions until a major catastrophe occurs and people ask, "Where are the firefighters?"