The following commentary was written by Gregg A. Cleveland, chair of the Wisconsin Fire Sprinkler Coalition:
There is a lot of discussion about changing the culture of the fire service today. In my nearly 40 years in the fire service, I have witnessed a lot of positive change; firefighters smoking cigarettes are rare, most all firefighters wear SCBA, and there is more awareness for health and safety of firefighters than ever before. However, there is still one area we need to address: home fire sprinklers.
With the recent emphasis on cancer prevention, we see the need for cancer screening, regular cleaning and decontaminating of our personal protective clothing, and carrying wipes on apparatus for immediate use following a fire. These are all good things that we need to do. However, are we treating the symptoms or are we treating the problem?
We need to take these precautions because of the number of fires that occur in non-sprinklered buildings, especially homes. I would expect that the fire service would be clamoring for home fire sprinklers because eliminating or greatly reducing our firefighters to the toxic products of combustion will result in the long-term elimination of cancer due to exposure. It will also eliminate firefighter injuries and deaths and make our workplace much safer for our firefighters.
My experience is that home fire sprinklers (or sprinklers in general) are still not a major topic of discussion among the fire service. Sprinklers and fire prevention must become the top priority of fire service if we are truly determined to make a serious effort to reduce cancer, other diseases, injuries, and deaths to firefighters. Why is this not happening? When I joined the fire service nearly 40 years ago, I joined to fight fires--not conduct fire inspections! All of my training focused on fighting fires and response, nothing on preventing fires. I believe the same holds true today. Fire prevention is not sexy. Responding to a fire that is nearly extinguished on arrival is not as gratifying as a good stop of an uncontrolled, fast-moving fire. There is still a sense that home fire sprinklers will some way downplay the importance or need for fire suppression forces. There is definitely a lack of understanding by the fire service that home fire sprinklers will have a positive impact on firefighter safety and health.
This is where our culture must change. We need to realize that we are unnecessarily exposing ourselves to preventable injuries, deaths, and serious diseases such as cancer. Many of these will come back to haunt us in what is to be the most precious years in our lives and impact time spent with our spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends.
I remember my uncle who died of lung cancer after smoking for the vast majority of his life. He told me that if he only knew how smoking would have affected his life today he would have stopped smoking yesterday. How many of our brothers and sisters who are dying from cancer today would have taken advantage of home fire sprinklers yesterday?