Article Critique

Can fire education teach responsibility?

The public’s general lack of understanding and ownership of fire safety is evident; the solutions are not

Jan 7, 2015


By Rick Markley, FR1 Editor-in-chief

Two news stories emerged last week that, while worlds apart, get at the core of some critical issues facing the fire service.

Many of you saw and remarked on the fire departments from the Netherlands that called on residents to use discretion when phoning for fire department help. They went as far as to suggest that residents attempt to extinguish small fires before calling for the fire department.

The reasoning was simple: high call volume and depleted resources made it hard to respond to every call. New Year’s Day calls for fire response can jump from 70 to 1,500 in The Hague.

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The second story involved a Mississippi family that tragically lost three small children in a house fire. Shortly after the fire, family members talked to a news reporter and questioned if the fire department’s response time contributed to the children’s deaths.

The family did not have working smoke alarms in the residence.

Those grieving should not be taken to task for obviously wrong-headed remarks. Yet, those comments were indicative of a much broader attitude.

Why, I cannot say, but there’s a sense that we are no longer responsible for our own well-being when it comes to fire and medical safety. You can see this in the presumed frustration of the Netherland fire service when telling people to not call if a fire can simply be put out with a small amount of water or sand.

And how many times do we see firsthand or read of home fires with no smoke alarms — or more commonly, alarms with the batteries removed?

You see this on the medical runs for hangnails and, more problematic, in those who smoke, eat and drink with wonton disregard for their bodies and land on the diabetes, cancer, heart disease and you name it list.

Conversely, my esteemed and knowing colleague on tells me the number of annual home invasions is relatively low. Insinuate that guns should be regulated and you’ll have a crap-storm of protests on your hands.

As an aside, wouldn’t it be cool to see people get half as riled over protecting their rights to own smoke and CO alarms?

The problem can’t be waved off with a “kids these days” resignation. In Mississippi, the Netherlands and many points between, people don’t understand the fire service.

They don’t understand the risks (both high and low) or their fire departments’ capabilities. Everyone reading this knows that a 13-minute response for a rural department is normal and that a 1,400 call-per-day jump in volume is unmanageable.

The public doesn’t get it.

Unfortunately, it falls to us to teach the public not only to have an escape plan and touch the door with the back of the hand, but to own their own fire safety.

Part of that means understanding the level of fire protection they can expect for the type of department they are willing to pay for. Part of that is to dispel any illusion that simply dialing 911 magically makes all problems go away.

It all comes back to that least sexy of fire service duties: community relations and fire prevention. Pushing personal responsibility on the community may be the best ways we can protect them.

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