May 4 is International Firefighters’ Day. This special event memorializes a fatal event in which 5 volunteers from the Geelong West Fire Brigade in Australia lost their lives while bravely fighting an intense wildfire in 1999. While this tragic incident prompted the initiation of International Firefighters’ Day, it is intended to reflect appreciation for the sacrifices all firefighters make throughout the world in order to ensure their communities are as safe as possible.
We all know that firefighting is dangerous business. Firefighters put themselves in harm’s way on a regular basis to protect lives and property. But it is important to consider that the scope of firefighters’ work has broadened dramatically since the early days of organized firefighting. Imagine if Benjamin Franklin could travel in time from 1736 for a sit down with the current leader of the Philadelphia Fire Department: “Hey Commissioner Thiel! How’s the bucket brigade doing these days?” “Oh, Ben – We are as busy as ever. Our members are doing lots of strong work! They respond to fires, car crashes, gas leaks, broken elevators, false alarms, trapped ducklings, caved-in construction sites, fallen grandmothers, derailed trains, collapsed decks, downed power lines, and flooded basements. Not to mention all of the medical calls. It all makes for a busy Monday!”
I’m sure good ol’ Ben would be curious about the journey his fire department had experienced over the course of the past 284 years as it transitioned into this all-hazards response agency. His eyes would pop thinking about how mitigation of each hazard would require new training, new equipment and new thinking – and increase the risks to the members of the department.
Firefighting is dangerous work. It is easy to see how entering a burning building puts these heroes at risk. But the threats are expansive. When a fire department is an all-hazards response agency, risks related to exposure to dangerous chemicals, vehicle crashes, to heart disease and cancer, to entrapment, to electrical injuries – and many other issues - increase. Even with amplified risks, the fire department still responds because the words of Lt. JJ Edmondson shared in 1999 still ring true today, “The role of a firefighter in today’s society is one of dedication, commitment, and sacrifice.”
As such, when we reflect on the sacrifices made by firefighters over the years, it is clear the only way to honor their work is to become an all-hazards prevention community. One strategy to help drive that transition is Community Risk Reduction. CRR is an all-hazards prevention approach and while many people look to CRR as a process to keep community members safe – it is also about keeping our first responders safe!
If you are community member wondering how you can thank a firefighter on International Firefighters’ Day, the answer is simple: Do something to take responsibility for your own safety. Check the batteries in your smoke alarms, remove the debris around your home in preparation for wildfire season, remove the trip hazards on stairs to prevent a painful fall. Once you have done that, help a neighbor do the same. Advocate for community-wide prevention activities. Help to foster a culture of prevention to protect those who have spent their lives protecting us. The time has come to honor our first responders with action rather than words.