How much can firefighters be expected to do?

Reflecting on the all-hazards nature of fire service response

By Marc Bashoor

Out of East Contra Costa County (California) Fire Department, the headline says, “Firefighters will no longer enter burning structures if lives are not at risk.”

Some of the traditionalists among us are going to immediately scream and yell it's un-American, but let’s stop and think about this for a second. Let's first look at what the fire chief said: If there is not a life safety issue, if there's not somebody inside, you need to do the best you can to fight the fire from the exterior to the interior, but you cannot be aggressive and overextend yourself.

This made me think about some of our history, some of our traditions, and consider what's going on in the law enforcement world right now. It made me wonder about the fire service whether we are extending ourselves too much.

Now I'm not suggesting we shouldn't go into fires. It seems in East Contra Costa's case, there was a series of budget cuts, resulting in staffing cuts and cutting the number of fire trucks they're sending to calls, so there's fewer people coming, there's fewer people on the fire trucks, there's less money to pay the bills. So the chief decided that we were going to essentially take a strict 2-in/2-out policy.

Is he wrong? No, he's not wrong. But I think that we need to really think about how this current environment, whether you think about what's going on in a law enforcement community or you think about what's going on in the budget altogether because of COVID-19 – what's happening to our budgets, what's coming down the pike and what's going to affect you here soon.

We know that we're going to have those struggles all over the country, and we better decide how we're going to deal with them. Maybe you're one of those that ends up decided that you won’t be able to go in those fires because you don't have enough people; you need to do the best you can from the outside until enough people get here, and then you're not going to overextend yourself.

How did we become an all-hazards fire service? We do tech rescue. We do hazmat. We do EMS. We do fires. You name it, we do it. Cat in a tree? Gotcha, we're coming. Odor of propane? Got it. Carbon monoxide alarm? We'll be there. Somebody stuck on a roof because the jury-lift they were in stopped working? We're coming, we'll be there. Protester climbs the tower, and somebody needs to go rescue them, we're on the way. That's us.

When Benjamin Franklin started his fire service in Philadelphia, he didn't start it to be a fire department per se; he started it to minimize insurance losses. He was an insurance broker/salesman, and he recognized that when people's stuff was burning down, it was burning down his stuff, and he was losing more money because there was nobody putting out the fire. So when he started, he didn't start it to put out the fire as much as he started it to protect his investment.

As we evolved as a fire service, we have taken on anything and everything that comes along, and folks I'm here to tell you that this should be a wake-up call.

I'm not suggesting we don't go to fires anymore, but I am suggesting budgets are getting ready to tighten up and you're going to have to make some hard decisions, so you either start making them now, you start thinking about the changes that you're going to have to implement to be able to operate with the budgets that you're given, or someone else is going to do it for you.

The fire service needs to start deciding now whether we're going to continue to be that all-hazards fire service. We need to open eyes and look at things through different lenses for everything going on right now, whether it's COVID or civil unrest or your budgets. You need to look through a different microscope, and you need to make sure that you're doing everything you can to keep yourself afloat.

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