Introduction: Protecting our Communities

When I began my fire service career in Phoenix, Arizona, more than 50 years ago, fire departments played a critical role in protecting communities throughout the nation – but the mission was more narrow then than it is today. As far as emergency response was concerned, the mission focused primarily on responding to fires, first aid calls and special duty calls. The training for firefighters was limited, and the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) was poorly engineered, or in some cases, non-existent. Firefighters learned basic fire suppression and rescue at the entry level, Red Cross first aid training – which took a total of 8 hours, and the only special duty training we received was using a Geiger Counter to search for radiation.

During the 1960s and 1970s, more than 12,000 people died in fires each year in the United States and hundreds of thousands were injured. It was common to experience upwards of 250+ firefighter line-of-duty deaths each year as well. Whether career or volunteer, being a firefighter was the greatest job I ever had. The people I began my career with were incredible and they were as committed to their work as firefighters have ever been. We performed the mission we were assigned and did it well, using the training, equipment and safety gear to the best of our ability. The camaraderie within the department was off the charts and for the most part, the public appreciated their firefighters. When dispatched, we went to the scene and gave it our all. When dispatched on another run, we went out and did it again – and again – with little regard from fire administrators or anyone else for the toll that intensity of work might be taking on firefighters.

Basically, as a fire department, we took better care of our fire apparatus than our firefighters. I don’t mean that as a dig on the past because until the 1980s or so, firefighter safety and wellness just wasn’t a front-burner issue. Changes in the fire service mission have been significant, including the types and frequency of responses firefighters might make during a shift. These changes, along with the performance expectations the public has of fire departments and firefighters, didn’t come all at once.

They occurred incrementally over time and resulted in the fire service becoming recognized as literally an all-hazards fire and life safety emergency service delivery system. Among these expectations has been the evolution of the fire service role in dealing with disasters (natural and human caused) and other extreme events. We essentially try our best to prevent harm – period – and address harm whenever it occurs. As IFSTA’s Speaking of Fire has done in the past, this edition looks at current response issues in general and focuses specifically on those issues that will certainly continue to challenge us in the future. The topics in this issue of Speaking of Fire are not limited to emergency response’s responsibilities on the scene, but include the cumulative impact of the modern-day mission on firefighters – physically, emotionally and psychologically.

During my career, I have responded to more than my share of what most would consider significant emergency incidents, including deadly high-rise hotel fires, major earthquakes, domestic terrorism in Oklahoma City, devastating hurricanes, terrorist attacks at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and a full range of emergency incidents throughout the Phoenix and Mesa Metropolitan Areas in Arizona. The key to success throughout past years has revolved around training and this remains true today. You simply can’t outperform your people. With that as the reality, I strongly believe the programs that need to be in place to maintain our firefighters’ health and well-being, as well as the training it takes to make those programs successful, is more important and complex today than ever before. Consider just the past few years, as fire departments have assumed and/or been delegated responsibility for the pre-hospital care of patients during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, due to issues surrounding the urban/wildland interface, zoning and construction practices, and changes in our climate, we are responding to frequent incidents of extreme wildfire behavior. Our human resources are on the scenes of acts of terrorism, active shooter situations and incidents arising from political and social up rise. Natural disasters seem to have increased in frequency and are more volatile than what has been the norm. These and similar challenges will continue in some form for years to come.

As the fire service, we will only be effective in meeting these and other mission challenges over the long haul if we maintain our human resources to the best of our ability. I am thrilled that Speaking of Fire will focus this edition on the types of programs and interventions that will accomplish that goal. These include, but are certainly not limited to, mental and behavioral health, stress, PTSD, and disorders such as sleep, and recovery from disasters and other events that meets not only the needs of the community, but the firefighters/first responders as well. Enjoy exploring this state-of-the-art information, because it will make fire departments more effective and their members safer, healthier and better prepared. Chief Dennis Compton has been a firefighter, fire officer, and fire chief, as well as held leadership positions in several national fire service organizations for more than50 years. During that time, he is humbled to have been the recipient of many prestigious national awards and recognitions. Chief Compton has been a member (and past chair) of the IFSTA Executive Board since 1983.

by Chief Dennis Compton

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