From an outsider’s perspective, the world of firefighting probably looks relatively simple: After sitting around the station all day playing checkers (sarcasm alert), the alarm goes off. Firefighters put on some heavy coats and pants, climb aboard the big red truck, and go squirt some water on a fire. Then they go back to the station, have dinner, play some cards, and go to bed. (Sarcasm again. I have to make that clear because you wouldn’t believe how many people think that’s what firefighters do all day.)
But if you’ve been reading this blog, know a firefighter or two, or simply pay attention to the variety of things you see firefighters doing in news video, you should already know the job is a little more complex. Turn to any news station (especially with all the natural disasters in recent years) and you’ll see firefighters making water rescues, searching tornado rubble for victims, extricating people from nasty car wrecks, or suiting up to mitigate chemical hazards.
Part of the reason the fire service has expanded from basic fire suppression to all-hazards emergency response is that fire departments are 24/7/365 operations. With stations strategically located in communities and neighborhoods for quick response, training firefighters to handle a variety of emergencies only made sense. In rural areas served by volunteers, this “jack of all trades” approach is crucial when help may otherwise be hours away.
Expanding the fire service mission has also helped fire departments justify their existence. The overall number of fires has decreased in recent decades thanks to improved fire prevention and education. That's great news for citizens, but the trend left fire departments trying to fend off budget cuts and downsizing (“If there’s fewer fires, why do we need so many of you?”). By adopting a culture of “customer service” and responding to everything from overflowing toilets (yes, those calls actually happen) to rescuing stranded rock climbers, firefighters have increased and improved services to the taxpayers. It’s a win-win situation.
Here’s some of the stuff modern-day firefighters do. This is just a general list that may or may not apply to a given department (remember, it all depends on the agency), but it proves the point that firefighters do more than fight fire.
- Firefighting (structural, wildland, aircraft, shipboard, industrial, etc.) – Fire is still the primary reason fire departments exist.
- Emergency medical services (EMS) – In many locales, EMS calls account for the bulk of fire department responses. These calls range from someone who called 911 for a stubbed toe (true story) to severe trauma injuries, cardiac arrests, and everything in between.
- Hazardous Materials response – Not all departments have dedicated HazMat teams, but firefighters are usually trained as HazMat first responders. This means they will respond to a HazMat call, attempt to identify the problem, take steps to protect people, and secure the scene.
- Traffic accident/vehicle crash response – Includes stabilizing the vehicle(s), mitigating any hazards such as spilled fuel, treating patients, and using specialized equipment to extricate victims.
- Specialized rescue – Includes swift water or flood rescue; high-angle rescue (rock climbing); heavy rescue for building collapses and trench rescues; and ice rescue. Some agencies also help rescue large animals at farms, ranches, and zoos.
- Hazard response – Includes initial response to utility problems such as ruptured gas or water lines, downed power lines, etc., or any other situation that poses a risk to health or life safety.
- Public education – Firefighters give fire safety presentations to school children, Scouts, homeowners associations, or pretty much anyone who asks. Many lives have been saved as a result of public education efforts by firefighters.