The recent tragic loss of nine Charleston firefighters on Monday reminds us of the front-line heroes who live and work among us everyday. As a former firefighter and fire commissioner, I have been privileged to observe and learn about the reasons that motivate a person to become a firefighter.
The poet, Khalil Gibran once wrote, ‘Work is love made visible.’ If ever there were a better definition of a firefighter’s work, this is it. We can observe the truth of this quote weekly on the nightly news.
While we know what firefighters do in situations like the one that occurred in Charleston and during some of the natural disasters we experienced several years ago, what do they really do most of the time and why do they do it?
First, let’s set the scene. Very few people know that the U.S. has the worst record in the civilized world for destruction of life and property by fire. Most of these fires do not occur in large buildings or in catastrophic events, but in single-family homes. Fire departments answer around one million calls annually. A fire occurs in the U.S. about every 18 seconds.
The average number of people who die each year in fires in the U.S. is about 3,500. A person dies in a fire in the U.S. every hour. To gain some perspective of the problem, imagine two fully loaded 747 planes crashing in a mid-air collision every month, year in and year out. This has been our average annual record for more than 20 years. This, of course, does not count the more than 18,000 people who were maimed or horribly disfigured last year and the direct destruction of property valued at more than $16 billion. We lose about 100 firefighters a year, as well. This kind of loss simply does not occur in most countries in Western Europe or Japan.