“Gene Therapy” for the Fire Service

At FRI, Dr. Burt Clark argues that a safe fire service requires change at the very roots of our culture

By Shannon Pieper
Published Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why do we do what we do? This question lies at the heart of understanding what’s commonly referred to as the culture of the fire service.

And it’s also at the heart of a quest that Dr. Burton Clark, EFO, CFO, has been on for nearly his entire fire service career. “It’s taken me 42 years to prepare for this presentation,” Clark noted at the beginning of his seminar today at Fire-Rescue International in Denver. Clark has been on a career-long journey to try to define what drives firefighters’ behavior—and from that, how we can begin to shape behavior to prevent unnecessary firefighter injury and death.

Fire Service DNA
Clark points out that culture is really like the DNA of an organization—it’s the artifacts, beliefs and underlying assumptions that make up who we are and what we do. For the fire service, that DNA has been inherited through the generations from Ben Franklin, who organized the first fire company and created the concept of fire protection in the United States.

Now, Ben Franklin’s influence was extremely positive—it allowed cities and towns to have a measure of protection against fire way before hydrants, fire trucks and paid firefighters existed. The problem: How Ben Franklin defined firefighting continues to affect how firefighters fight fire today, even when conditions have changed and we no longer need to take the same risks.

Clark outlines several “genes” that have defined the fire service since Ben Franklin’s time. Overlying these fire service genes is the understanding that firefighting is manual—we need human beings to put fires out.

You have to be fast.
“Franklin taught us that being fast to the fire was important,” Clark says, “because if you didn’t get to the fire quickly, the whole town would burn down.” In 2012, however, that remains the mindset, even when the difference in response time between a fast-and-reckless response and a quick-but-safe response is negligible. In 2012, both the LAFD and the FDNY were caught misrepresenting response times—because, Clark argues, they still have the Franklin mentality that seconds count.

As Clark points out, if fast was the only thing that mattered in fire protection, we as a society would have accepted residential fire sprinklers a long time ago—nothing’s faster to a fire than that. But because we believe firefighting is a manual task, that acceptance has been slow.

You have to get close to the fire.
In Franklin’s day, firefighters fought fire with buckets. They had to get close to the fire in order to get the water on it. Clearly, that’s no longer the case—deck guns, hoselines, even remote firefighting tools all allow firefighters to keep their distance and still extinguish the flames.

And yet, Clark notes, the fire service is currently studying how to create SCBA facepieces that fail at higher temperatures than the ones currently available—all so firefighters can get closer to the fire.

You have to get as much water on the fire as possible (wet).
Ben Franklin’s firefighters didn’t have the convenience of a central hydrant system; hence, they had to focus on getting water to the fire from a remote source. For much of the United States, that’s no longer the case—not only do we have hydrants, but we have the ability to install sprinklers in every structure, ensuring an on-scene water supply everywhere.

Yet, as Clark notes, the fire service continues to take a manual approach: “When the fire service and society think of ‘wet,’ they think of big, red fire trucks, not little tiny sprinkler heads.”

You must take risks.
Fire service LODD funerals are generally big, solemn productions, in which the fallen firefighter is lauded as someone who gave his/her life for a greater cause. In Ben Franklin’s day, this made sense—society benefited from firefighters who were willing to sacrifice their lives to save the town when fire struck. Today, however, that risk is very rarely needed, yet we continue to reward firefighters for risky behavior, paying them higher wages and providing an LODD benefit.

Clark argues that we have accepted that firefighting carries inherent risk—both within in the fire service and within greater society. “Polio became unacceptable to our society, so we eradicated it,” he says. “Until we believe that zero is the only acceptable number of fire service casualties, we will continue to have them. Some of my contemporaries today make the statement that ‘Not everyone goes home’—as if that’s acceptable. If we say that, it’s going to happen.”

You may get injured/you may get killed.
Just as with risk taking, many people, firefighters and citizens alike, believe that firefighting in inherently a dangerous profession in which injury and death is to be expected. Quoting FDNY Chief Croker in 1908: “Firemen are going to get killed. When they join the department they face that fact.”

Today, Clark argues, we continue that idea, even when firefighters are hurt or killed doing something wrong. He quotes Alan Brunacini: “General bravery and terminal stupidity both get the same eulogy.”

A Final Word
Clark underscores that many of the LODDs he has studied—and shared in the class—are not the fault of the individuals, or even necessarily the fire service. The “genes” that the fire service now carries are the result of hundreds of years of decisions about how to approach fire protection. They started with Ben Franklin, and they remain largely unchanged today.

Clark argues that changing fire service culture requires changing society itself, getting the average citizen to understand that “fire protection” doesn’t just mean firefighters rushing up in engines and trucks wearing lots of gear; it’s working smoke alarms, family escape plans, residential and commercial sprinklers.

So what’s his “gene therapy” for the fire service?

  • Click it and pledge—require firefighters to wear seatbelts whenever the apparatus is moving, and take the seatbelt pledge as a department.
  • Test and install smoke alarms in as many residences as possible.
  • Support sprinkler legislation.


As Clark points out, this gene therapy doesn’t require new technology; it doesn’t require learning new things. “We just need to do what we know is right.”

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Photo courtesy Visit Denver/Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau

“Gene Therapy” for the Fire Service

At FRI, Dr. Burt Clark argues that a safe fire service requires change at the very roots of our culture
Photo courtesy Visit Denver/Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau

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