How ‘fire porn’ hurts the fire service

Billy Hayes

Do you prefer prevention or porn?

For the record, I'm not talking about the kind of porn that will get you fired if you watch it at work. I'm referencing "fire porn."

You know, the exciting stuff you see on the cover of almost every fire service trade publication, YouTube, and most fire and emergency services websites: structures on fire, helmets melting, gear smoking, lots of destruction.

Let's face it, it sells.

This was recently confirmed by a friend who's an editor of one of those publications; he said that he would gladly replace those photos with prevention images if I can assure him that he won't lose subscribers.

To his defense, we all know that if we start replacing fire porn with photos of firefighters installing smoke alarms or car seats, conducting pre-fire plans or company inspections, or even teaching a CPR class, the fire service would go into shock.

I mean really, who wants to watch a video about how to conduct risk assessment in their local communities? Boring!

We know we would rather watch a dash cam or amateur video of a structure fire and debate strategy and tactics and talk about how that department should have been more aggressive.

The paradox
A paradox is a statement that contains conflicting ideas or concepts. It's similar to having a policy to have only the best gear money can buy, but showing up with only enough cash for what's on sale.

"To protect lives and property" is a paradox in the fire service. Our words say one thing, but our actions say otherwise.

Most in the fire service believe that only occurs when dispatched at the point where lives and property are being or are already lost. It's a culture that has evolved for decades. Ah, the good old "culture" word. How did that happen?

Culture evolves when values and behaviors become the situational norm. When uninterrupted, those norms have validation from where the values came from.

This is the process, or cycle, of cultural development. In other words, if nothing changes, we can plan on hearing, "It's always been done this way."

Marketing the job
So here we are at the crossroads. Can we break this cycle? Can we change the culture of embracing our mission? Can we change behaviors and values to prevent the paradox from occurring?

As I was attending the National Volunteer Fire Council conference in South Carolina, I saw the paradox in action. While grabbing dinner, I ran into a young man covered in fire tattoos and sporting an FDNY T-shirt.

I simply asked him if he was in the brotherhood and where he worked. He was a volunteer who had just recently relocated from Pennsylvania and was looking for a career position in the Myrtle Beach area.

We chatted for a few minutes, and he told me of his volunteer companies in Pennsylvania and how his department was used for mutual aid because they were very aggressive. I asked if he had paid any attention to the NIST studies on thermal attack.

The young man said no. So I dug a little deeper and asked if he has ever read the book "Fire Command" by Chief Brunacini. He replied with, "Who?"

I also asked if he had read either one of the "America Burning" publications. "No."

So, I wished him well in his endeavors, gave him my card and headed back to my hotel.

The old guard
It rang clear to me that this talented young man may be headed for the paradox like so many others in our profession. Visions of sugarplums dancing in our heads have been replaced with the grandeur of flames through the roof or pushing out the windows, making an aggressive interior attack, or dragging a victim out.

I know, there are those who say that's what we get paid to do. I've seen and heard it said by some of the "fire porn stars" that the fire service only exists for suppression.

I've even had an operations chief tell me that we get paid to die for property just like we do for people.

I do not believe that to be true.

There is a time and place for that. We need to be tactically trained and prepared to do that as needed and when called upon.

We need the bravery to carrying on the tradition of saving lives, as so many before us who didn't have the luxury of the resources and technology we have today.

Action items
But, if we say we that our motto is to protect lives and property, then we need to embrace that from the prevention standpoint, make it a priority and find a way to make it sexy.

The fire service leadership needs to step up. It needs to happen at the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and in every state and local fire service organization.

That also means changing the fire porn we watch. Slowly, we need to begin assimilating our fire service members by adding more community risk reduction and prevention presentations to conference shows; by adding more columns, articles, and photos to our trade publications; and by training new members that preventing the incident from occurring is our foremost mission — that we respond when failure in prevention has occurred.

We need those in the fire service to be "turned on" by prevention.

The other paradox
Another component of this paradox is we have to get water on it as quickly as we can, and I agree. Don't fire sprinklers help accomplish that?

Yet, the fire service has not fully embrace residential fire sprinklers. So where does the "protect lives and property" play into this?

In fact, we have even allowed the public to play into the paradox because we haven't invested time to educate them to the importance of residential fire sprinklers. Hence, we find the public, in many cases, are in opposition and aligned with the home-builders' associations.

Although the total number of fires are decreasing, those we have are burning differently due to construction and contents. And, we have many other things we respond to.

It's not sexy
We should address injury prevention, health-related issues, environmental issues that we are the first to arrive, and so much more. But our attention in prevention seemingly only applies to fire, which I understand is low frequency but high risk.

I know that I will draw criticism from this column. It's not popular, it's not sexy, and it goes against what so many joined our profession to do because of the way we have marketed the job.

Please don't misinterpret my message. I support suppression. But shouldn't that suppression begin through prevention and not just when destruction is under way?

How long can we exist in the paradox and how can we transition from "fire porn stars" to "fire and injury prevention stars?"

The bigger question is why do we have to choose? Why can't we be both?

Be safe.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://mutualaidleadership.com Jason Pope

    Nice article Billy, thanks for sharing. In South Carolina, we are working with state and local officials to think different about prevention. If we put people first, we will be passionate about prevention.

  • Demetrios Vlassopoulos

    Very well written, Billy.

    There are fire department community risk reduction (CRR) initiatives out
    there that have made a difference. One in particular I know you are familiar with is the Vision 20/20 Initiative. We as a service should more aggressively discuss
    amongst ourselves the challenges and rewards of instituting these programs in
    our communities. The benefits of successfully deploying a CRR strategy are numerous. Although, the challenges are significant, especially when we task our operational members to successfully deploy the strategy.

    Yes, the numbers of working fires are down; although, the fire service workload continues to increase. Subsequently, this increased workload is anything but sexy (your words). Our volunteer and career members are tasked with maintaining numerous and more stringent certifications than ever before. In order to remain proficient (and safer) at everything we do we must continue to train and drill. Although, effectively balancing the increased emergency services workload with the need to drill, train, maintain certifications, apparatus, equipment, facilities, etc. while also taking on an effective CRR/prevention strategy requires a strong plan that also balances our fire and EMS providers’ workloads.

    So, in my opinion this is not about preferring prevention or porn; it is about keeping our firefighters engaged in the fire service and what our service continues to evolve into. I absolutely agree we can be and in many cases are both the fire porn stars and injury and prevention stars, even if exciting working incident cover photos and videos don’t depict our prevention duties.

    I also believe we shouldn’t discourage marketing our occupation using real fire incident multimedia. The reality is it is up to us as leaders to articulate the expectations of our fire and EMS providers, and that expectation can and should be suppression begins through prevention (again your words). However, exciting photos inspiring sitting room discussions of mitigation strategy and tactics, especially with the decline of working fires, should be embraced, as should checking/replacing batteries on smoke alarms when on medical locals; thus, being both the fire porn star and injury prevention star.

    Demetrios “Jim” Vlassopoulos

  • https://www.youtube.com/user/inst5productions?feature=mhee Dave Brasells

    This is yet another issue where the American Fire Service will never reach a consensus. If we cannot agree on the color of a our apparatus, or leather versus composite, smooth bore or fog, universal, baseline fitness abilities, that residential fire sprinklers not only save lives but can greatly reduce insurance cost (and don’t eliminate firefighter jobs) … shall I go on? Our brothers in Blue have it figured out … if you’re a commissioned police officer it’s pretty much the same nationwide … their universal standards allow them access to more federal funding and isn’t accreditation more universal for police due to universal standards? Until we have a national, mandated standard for volunteer and career firefighters alike, we will continue to flounder as an American Fire Service where one chief’s opinion reigns supreme here and another’s there … the fist-a-cuffs at the scene of the fire still happen, just no physical punches are thrown … political assassinations are the norm when change gains momentum in today’s fire service! That seems to be the real porn that fire service members cannot get enough of … just like the gawking passerby who wants to see the gory details of the wreck scene, they devour the change agent in fear of ignorance. BTW, isn’t it curious that we can lobby and get fire safety codes passed and adopted at local levels as law, but we as a fire service refuse to adopt our own tried and tested NFPA standards as law to make us a universal American fire service that is safer for members and the public alike? Oh, wait I know why, ‘You can’t tell me what to do!’ and $$$$$$$ Time to go sweep out the cave and find a new club … and stoke the fire!

  • gianganh

    thank for sharing.

    Friv