I am constantly hearing and reading stories, discussions and debates about the mission of the fire service and how it is changing. No doubt it is changing, as everything always is. What I continue to hear is that fires are down and our role as a fire service is not fire, but emergencies, disasters, EMS, technical rescue and much more.
Well, let me say right here, right now that I know our scope of operations is expanding. I know that many fire departments respond to many more EMS calls than fire calls. I know that emerging issues such as terrorism are evolving and continue to grow. I know all of this is true, but I also know a few things about the “fire problem” that I believe we all should know.
Fire’s costly impact
What is the single largest cause of property loss in the United States? Fire! The single largest cause of property loss! Property loss is homes, apartment buildings, businesses, libraries, schools and a host of other valuable community assets. Monetary losses incurred by structural fires amount to more than the combined losses resulting from hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, mudslides and all other types and sizes of natural disasters.
Read that again if you must. The property loss from fire in the U.S. is more than all other losses combined! In the last decade, fires have caused direct losses of more than $120 billion and billions more in related costs. If these losses were not enough, think of the losses that follow. Think of the jobs lost to factory and commercial building fires. Think of the taxes lost after a store burns down. Think of the negative financial impact on the companies that supply products to businesses that go out of business after a fire.
What other types of losses occur at structural fires in the United States? Lives! Again, I am amazed when I ask this question at a seminar or training event. Do you have any idea how many Americans are killed at structural fires? The answer is thousands!
Let’s look at the statistics for 2012. There were 1,375,000 structural fires that year, resulting in the deaths of 2,855 people. That number is frighteningly close to the number of Americans who died on Sept. 11, 2001. Those tragic deaths resulted in an almost total overhaul of the U.S. airline industry security procedures, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the American people from another terrorist attack.
Yet, from 2000 to 2012, more than 44,000 civilians died in structural fires. Look at the July issue of Firehouse®Magazine – you will see on page 10 that at press time, 1,278 civilians had so far perished in fires in residential buildings in the U.S. And that is only for residential buildings.
So what is the point? The point is that although the almost 3,000 people who die in fires every year don’t die at one fire or on a single day, they do die. Men, women and children. Grandparents, parents, sons and daughters. People who are sleeping in their homes in the middle of the night and people who are trapped at work in office building fires. There is no way to minimize or compare these deaths to any others.
I know people die at mudslides and earthquakes and tornadoes. But almost 3,000 people die every year in fires. So why is it still acceptable and even considered responsible for mayors, city managers and others to continue to cut fire services in their communities?
Whenever the economy takes a negative turn, the people who run our local governments try to squeeze another dollar of savings from the local fire department. And what do they say when announcing the closing of a firehouse or the reduction of staffing? They say, “Fires are down.” They say, “The fire department is primarily an EMS agency.” And the real bad news is it’s not only them; some of us say the same things.
I am not saying any of those statements is not true. What I am saying is that fire is the biggest, most painful and costliest opponent to us as firefighters, to our citizens and to our nation’s economic health. Why then are we not augmenting our fire departments? Why are we not legislating more economic aid and support for the American fire service? Why are we cutting staffing and closing firehouses and then telling unknowing citizens, “These cuts will not negatively affect fire protection in your neighborhood”?
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on numerous valuable programs to keep Americans safe. Fire kills more people and incurs more losses than anything else and yet we must write grants to get new apparatus and equipment. There must be a better way!
Chief John Salka