Part 2: Paradox of prevention and fire porn

Billy Hayes

Needless to say, it has been an interesting past few weeks since my column about the paradox of prevention and fire porn. I certainly knew that I would push some buttons and draw criticism, but I had hoped to generate conversation about the issues I brought up.

I quickly realized that it was going to be a big deal. The column was shared in many blogs and websites including Statter911 where my pal Dave Statter claimed to be Larry Flynt of the fire industry, thus, I assume, making me Jerry Falwell.

I would personally like to thank everyone who responded. I appreciate all of your insights, positions, and points of view regardless of whether in agreement or not.

While I've been called names and received hate mail, I also received tremendous support on my position. I wanted to respond because the over-riding theme of the column was missed by many. I hope the conversation and takeaways will continue as that was my purpose.

Power of the headline
As I stated in a couple of posts, I was not excited about the column's title. It was not my selection and I don't think it painted an accurate picture of the article. I certainly don't believe that fire porn hurts that fire service as much as it attests to the fact that it is what draws attention to the magazines and websites.

I don't believe many could get past the title to read the article before their opinion and bias was formed. However, I'm not sure it may have had the same impact in the fire service or drew the same attention if the title were different.

For many years, the National Enquirer was the top selling newspaper. It was strategically placed in the checkout lines, and even to this day, the headlines catch your eye. But using the term fire porn was for shock and awe purposes, and it too got everyone's attention.

My friends Dave Statter from Statter911 and Rhett Fleitz from The Fire Critic used the column to their advantage by driving traffic and comments to their websites as it was a hot topic. I would like to publically thank them for being supportive on the message and intent that I presented, even though they were not in total agreement because they post an abundance of those fire videos that I referred to.

They maintained their integrity, and even took a little heat with me and for me. So, the lesson learned here is that if you want to get your message out, sometimes you've got to take a risk to capture attention, and also rely on your friends to see the truth.

Question missed
Another lesson learned is to get your question answered, you sometimes have to ask it again. There were plenty of comments that supported the fact that prevention and community risk reduction isn't as popular or attractive as suppression.

I agree; I even said that in the article. But how do we make it sexy? How can we change the fire service culture to build more support and incorporate it in all of our duties and responsibilities more than just giving it lip service?

If changing magazine covers, conference presentations, and videos that include more prevention functions isn't the answer, then what is? I didn't see the questions answered and I am still looking. I hope they soon emerge.

It seems many missed the point in the column. I never said the fire porn should be eliminated. I said that we should begin incorporating, actually assimilating our members to, more photos and videos of prevention and risk reduction into our magazine covers, content, websites and conferences.

Missing the point
My point wasn't an attack on suppression, it was to promote prevention and find a way to make it as sexy, popular and as important as suppression. My attack was on our culture that there still is a belief that suppression is the only reason the fire service exists of which our constant exposure to only those images and videos could contribute.

I stated in the article that I have and always will support suppression as it is when training, preparation and opportunity meet. There is a time and place that we will lay it on the line, be aggressive, and risk more than what normal civilians will. At that moment, for the individual we respond to, that is the purpose of the fire service.

That means we should be well trained, brave, and fit to do the job for when that time arises. I would never suggest anything other than that, and I or anyone else would be reckless to say such.

The point is that it also takes bravery to engage in non-suppression activities such as prevention and risk reduction. And if we say that our mission is to protect lives and property, it equally applies in prevention. However, I will never accept that we only exist for suppression.

A good shepherd
From a blog I read, I also understand there are those who wish to be the "sheepdog" preparing for when the wolf shows up, because the sheepdog can protect the sheep. I agree; that is certainly needed because the wolf's arrival is always a risk.

However, a good shepherd should take every opportunity to reduce the risk of the wolf to protect both the sheep and the sheepdog because often instinct can result in tunnel vision of the overall mission. While the sheepdog may fend off one wolf, others could silently and secretly attack.

It doesn't mean that we won't fight the wolf, but the focus should be on making every effort to prevent the wolf from coming, not just fighting it. Equally, fires don't show up just because the sheepdog is there, or in this case, the firefighter.

Like the sheep, most of the American public is complacent about fire. Why wait for something to happen before we fight it when we should make every effort to prevent it?

Prevention is not absolute
Although there was little conversation about sprinklers, the fact is we will always be fighting fires. Not every building and home will be sprinkled, and things will happen that aren't preventable.

I wasn't completely accurate when I said that we only respond when prevention has failed. That is a majority of the case; hence, cooking is the number one cause of residential fires.

However, my good friend Chief Bobby Halton, reached out to me to respectfully disagree. He pointed out that natural disasters and events beyond our control will always happen. Chief Halton was correct and in my haste of getting the point across, I missed it.

Many of the comments said that the videos are a great training tool for individuals and departments. As said by many, with the lack of structural fire training, and even more with the lack of working fires, these videos provide a value to a great many.

It was pleasing to see that said so frequently. I too grew up on FETN and fire videos and learned a great deal from them. The next step is to share best practices on how we do that effectively.

Everyone is watching and reading
On some sites since the article, I have seen more questions asking what appropriate strategies and tactics should be implemented of the videos posted, rather than just throwing a video up.

I would further suggest that these videos be used for prevention purposes equally to help elected officials and the public to understand how important prevention and code development truly is and what can occur with the lack thereof.

A nugget to consider is that firefighters are not the only ones with Internet access. Keep in mind that the video and images of someone's possessions going up in flames is also accessible by that very customer.

Because we tend to beat each other up in the blogs and comments on these videos and images, question strategy and tactics, that customer who lost everything can begin questioning the capabilities of the organization that responded.

So when using these videos as many say they do, keep that in mind.

More encouragingly was the amount of support for prevention that exists. While there were many who respectively disagreed with some or all of what I wrote, there were more who were in agreement.

To me it indicates that we are making progress. And if writing that article was to begin that movement openly, then I would write it again.

Let me be clear
I love the fire service. Even in my career after the fire service, I still eat and breathe the fire service. In my role now, my goal is to contribute to making the fire service better than it was when I arrived. I believe that is all any of us wish to do.

However, sometimes that means we have to question the norm and the culture, as well as do things at the risk of hurting feelings and relationships.

That I have done.

I know there are those who have distanced themselves from me now and question my loyalty to the fire service, or even think this was a publicity stunt to gain "stardom."

Let me be clear, I risked my reputation in the profession I love only because I want to make it better. Going with the flow isn't an option. Watching 37,000 people die in fires since 2002 is not acceptable.

Reading reports of hundreds of firefighters dying in the line of duty and thousands injured responding to and operating at events that could have been prevented is heartbreaking. Watching prevention budgets be slashed because it's not the most important function of our job is criminal.

The black sheep
You can question many things about me as an individual, but my loyalty and love of the fire service is non-negotiable. We are in a tough profession that can be brutal and often very polar in opinions, such as suppression versus prevention.

I knew what I was getting in to and what I may be subject to when I wrote the article. And while I could have phrased some things differently, my values, beliefs and integrity are what I stand on.

If I must stand on the outside as the black sheep of the family because of my passion for prevention and the desire to save lives other than by rescue, so be it. I'll take my place.

I would ask you to read the original article again. I know there will still be some who disagree, but I think if you get past the title, think about the content, and evaluate our culture, maybe you can see the point — agree or disagree.

While I know this article will probably never get the traction or shares as the first, I want you to walk away with the idea that discussion was created. I think it will continue for some time, which is healthy.

I'm not a fan of the term "fire porn" as it was something I heard 24 years ago as a rookie, and repeated often throughout my career — even by some who now are in disagreement with what I have said here. After this article, I won't use it in my writings again.

As I asked one of the editors when he would produce a prevention cover photo of his respective publication, he said it may take some time. Planting the seed was the first step.

Now, I challenge each of you, when you see the cover of your next magazine or watch the next video on the web, before you engage in strategy and tactical discussion, ask two questions:

  • How did it start?
  • What could have been done to prevent it?

We may not get the answer, but if we can incorporate some of that thought process, my goal would has been met.

Be safe!

Comments - Add Yours

  • Robert Avsec

    Billy, you might not win every race, but you’ll always be my “horse”! I thought it was a great article (and courageous on your part) and that’s why I heavily “marketed” it on social media including the various LinkedIn Groups I belong to. Be assured this one will get equal airtime!

    • Billy D. Hayes

      As always, thanks brother. Keep spreading the word. This one sure hasn’t got the attraction like the last one but wow people are still talking about it!

  • Steve Zaccard

    Hooray for you! I’ve been in the fire service for 44 years. Since 1970 we have reduced fire deaths nationally 75%, not by rescuing more-and-more people from burning buildings, but by preventing fires and their consequences. That’s a trend we should be proud, but we have more to do. Our job of putting out fire with prevention continues. THANK YOU for your insight – and courage.

  • JC

    Well, as I’ve preached my my entire fire career (33+ yrs), the number one goal of a firefighter is to go home at the end of the shift. I managed to do that for the 18 years I was in suppression, but it didn’t take me until I was well in to the second half of my career to begin to understand how some of that was skill and training, but a lot was due to effective fire engineering and code enforcement. So over that time, my mantra has changed just a bit. I still want firefighters to go home safe and sound at their end of their tour. But as a Fire Code Official, my job is to make sure that I can make the firefighters job as safe as I can through engineering, inspection and education. Its as much about keeping our first responders alive and well as it is keeping the general population safe. And maybe that’s the key to shifting the paradigm of suppression versus prevention.

    • Billy D. Hayes

      JC, thanks for the feedback and insight. Maybe reducing fires even more and gaining momentum is the way to get things done and make it more attractive. We’ll see.

  • noozy9

    God bless you, Billy! It sometimes feels like the thing the fire service is most successful at is suppressing prevention.

  • Michael J Wheeler

    The philosopher George Santayana has been quoted as saying, “Those who fail to heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” For the fire code official this is a very accurate statement. People keep dying in the same fires over and over again. The courageous efforts of firefighters at the scene of these fires are often inadequate to prevent the tragic loss of life.
    I entered the fire service as a volunteer in 1973, the same year that the report, America Burning was introduced to the public. This report was a wake-up call to the fire service. It was first to identify and expose fire porn and to call for an increased effort in preventing fires.
    Although I entered the fire service at the beck and call of Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto, I was introduced to fire prevention as part of a hire-back fire inspector program shortly after becoming a career firefighter in 1977. It didn’t take me long to realize that I could positively affect more lives in my town through code development, enforcement and public education than as a fire medic.
    Sadly, the fire service needs fire porn to justify the money needed to operate efficiently and safely. I fear that without fire porn, many fire department budgets would be cut. That being said, it is a shame that so little of that budget is directed toward fire prevention. After all the fire inspector serves the fire department in much the same way as a Marine recon unit serves the infantry, He brings back valuable information to his brothers and sisters that help to keep them safe. No army would go into battle without intelligence on the enemy and neither should firefighters.
    Thank you Billy for saying the words that need to be said.

  • Tod Gates

    Billy, thanks for having the courage to speak out. I thought the original article was well-written, timely and accurate. My concern is that trepidation about speaking to one of our core functions is necessary. As a 31-year fire service veteran, I stand with you on this topic. It is NOT disloyal to try to protect the lives and property of those we serve, or the lives of our brothers and sisters.

    Preach on!

    Tod Gates
    Interim Fire Chief
    Lynnwood Fire Department

  • Kraig Herman

    Splendid articles! Every bit of it true. What makes me chuckle though is after reading over other comments here, I’ve noticed something missing. The probies!!! I see a 31 year veteran commenting, a 40 year, I’m in it 23, but where are 1 years, 5 years? Perhaps thats the range we need to educate on the importance of prevention. And not just 1 time a year, promote prevention year round. The trend of giving budget money to FD’s based on supression needs to go away. WE need to get prevention back onto a level ground with supression. Education, Education, Education thats what needs to be done more…..be safe brothers

  • http://www.yepi3games.net/ thieugia

    That’s a trend we should be proud, but we have more to do. Our job of putting out fire with prevention continues. THANK YOU for your insight

    Yepi

  • Mike Tucker

    Billy – I always enjoy your insights. You were correct in the first article and you have correctly stated the current situation in this one as well. Keep fighting the good fight!