Sunday, October 25, 2009

Why America Burns

by: Lou Angeli

Note: This feature was originally written for a civilian audience.

Wilmington, DE (October 25, 2009) -- Organized chaos. That's how the fire scene is often described. The adrenaline charged atmosphere often resembles a battleground. But in this war zone there's no time to develop a battle plan. Firefighters have only a few precious minutes to defeat their opponent so forthis firefight to be successful action must be immediate.

Back in the day, Firefighting was all about racing to the scene, donning a tin helmet and aiming the nozzle at the flames and smoke. And that's pretty much how the general public still perceives the job. But times have changed, and today there’s an art, not to mention a science, to fighting fires.

In terms of extinguishing blazes, today’s firefighters are trained to go face-to-face with the beast, inside the burning building for an "offensive" attack. Some fire training experts say that the trick is to tame the fire, before extinguishing it, and there are dozens of tactics for doing so. But these strategies often come with extreme risk.

Bottom line -- firefighters must make crucial life and death decisions quickly.During the past 30 years, annual civilian fire deaths have been reduced by 50%. But firefighters deaths continue to rise, with 112 being lost in the line of duty last year alone. Even more disturbing are OSHA and the National Fire Protection Association’s predictions that fully one-third of the current firefighting force of approximately 1 million will be injured on the job during the year 2009. Of those who will be injured, it is estimated that over half do not have adequate insurance coverage to attend their needs. Is this any way to treat the Bravest?

Change Comes Slowly to America's Firehouses

Our firefighting counterparts of just 50 years ago were leather-lunged old salts who were overworked, under trained and poorly equipped. Without adequate personal protection, or proper equipment, a "career" in the fire service back then was a sure-fire invitation to an early grave.

Thankfully, our job as firefighters has evolved into a high-tech profession. During the last generation alone, the fire-rescue service has seen more change than it did in its first 300 years. But change comes slowly to America’s firehouses.

In the years immediately following World War II, some of the technology that had been made available to the armed services was brought home to fire stations by the soldiers and sailors who actually used it. Tools and equipment like Chem-Ox masks, fog nozzles, even 1.5 inch hose were all born from military uses during the War. Imagine the culture shock that existed among veteran firefighters, when these "wet behind the ears" probies introduced their new toys. Hell, the old-timers we're just growing accustomed to motorized apparatus.

But the post War techno-revolution was short-lived, and our counterparts of the late 50's and early 60's found themselves falling way behind the rest of society. The World was changing, and so were our first-alarm districts. In homes and businesses, wooden furniture and cotton products were replaced by plastics and hydrocarbons, which changed the way we did business at fires. The DuPont slogan, "Better Living Through Chemistry," brought new meaning to America's Bravest.

Without proper equipment and training, fighting these "new wave" fires was a tough game. By 1965, we'd lost possession of the ball and our forward momentum had stalled. Our coaching staff was perplexed and the spectators were beginning to lose their interest.

The Fire Act

In 1972 President Richard M. Nixon (a Republican) made a bold move by appointing a special commission to study the fire problem here in the United States. His directive was simple -- determine the fire problems, and make suggestions on how to fix them. Nixon was determined to make the Commission succeed, and he did so by enlisting and recruiting the nation's movers and shakers of the fire-rescue services.

Once together, theirs was no small task. The commission took on some very controversial issues including rising civilian deaths, firefighter safety, the high-rise dilemma, and fire prevention. Their report "America Burning" was a harsh, and very critical review of the fire situation here in America.

"It is appalling,' the report began, 'that the most technologically advanced nation in the World, reports the highest per-capita fire deaths and monetary fire loss." The commission pulled no punches in their treatment of the issues, and those of us who serve today, owe a great deal to the men and women who recommended the changes that most of us take for granted.

35 Years After

However, now 35 years later, the fire problem here in the United States has once again raised its fiery head. And according to fire administrators, the situation seems to be getting worse, instead of better.

“To a great extent, the fire problem in America remains as severe as it was 30 years ago.” That’s the very first sentence from “America Burning Recommissioned,” a report dealing with progress made since the introduction of the Fire Act. Even with the introduction of the smoke detectors and a greater emphasis on public education, the incidence of fire in this nation has increased to an alarming rate. Why? Some say it’s public apathy.

“Americans have always been neglectful of safety and loss prevention,” says investigative journalist Herb Denenberg, He adds, “Perhaps we are more focused on producing wealth than preserving it.” The new commission agreed. “The indifference with which Americans confront the subject, which the 1973 Commission found so striking, continues today.”

Fire is the most common of all home disasters and the third leading cause of accidental injury and death in the home. Fires spread very quickly, but it isn’t the flames that kill! Deadly smoke and poisonous gases snuff the life out of victims long before the flames reach them. There's no time to stop and think and wonder what's the best thing to do. The situation can change in seconds. Half a minute after the smoke alarm goes off, an entire floor of your house could be filled with dense smoke.

More than 4,500 Americans die each year in fires and over 100,000 are injured. An overwhelming number of these lif- threatening fires occur in the home. However, there are time-tested ways to prevent and survive a fire. It's not a question of luck - it's a matter of planning ahead.