I could tell by the writing on the package that it was from my mother-in-law. She’s a pathological garage-sale addict, and now that he has purchased everything the Yuma, Ariz., garage-sale market can possibly offer, she has taken to discovering “treasures” for my family and mailing them to us on a random basis. In fact, if you need an old “Seal-a-Meal," or a set of bongo drums, or a jogging outfit from 1986, she can hook you up, no problem. So imagine my surprise when I opened the box on my porch and found a beautiful book chronicling the centennial history of the. This is a nice book, with a navy-blue leatherette cover and real medallions embedded in the front showing the three seals of the IAFC going back to when they were known as the National Association of Fire Engineers. Finding this treasure significantly more interesting than a “Seal-a-Meal," I actually spent several evenings reading through it.
As I read Donald O’Brien’s extensive history of the proceedings from every IAFC conference since 1873 — Donald must have had a lot of time on his hands back in 1973 — I was struck by a couple of things:
1] We’ve come a long way, but are still confronting many of the same issues in the fire service.
2] Fire chiefs like to goof off.
The issues, identified by the chiefs 137 years ago, were primarily fire prevention and extinguishment concerns. Prevention concerns included things like safer building materials, the need for fire walls, better emergency egress, and proper storage of flammable materials. On the extinguishment side there were concerns raised about best practices for organizing fire departments, uniformity of equipment so mutual aid companies could work together more efficiently, adequate water supply infrastructure, and the importance of reliable communications. Subsequent years saw additional issues arise such as the merits of gasoline-powered apparatus over horse-drawn steamers, the occasionally suspect interests of insurance companies, and the formation and adoption of building codes.
Then in 1883, there was much hand wringing and debate over the scourge of too many fire chiefs goofing off and skipping out on the convention sessions. (Can you believe that?) The remaining chiefs voted to levy a severe punishment on the absent chiefs: they would begin penalizing them $1 per missed meeting. Apparently, some of the chiefs didn’t mind the $1.00 fines, since the issue was brought up again in 1885. I’d say a dollar would have been worth it to spend a few hours enjoying the attractions of the host city rather than sitting in a noisy, smoky convention hall; call me crazy.
So we’ve come a long way, yet we are still wrangling with some of the same issues. We still have to fight to make progress with building codes — and now wildland-urban interface codes — not to mention residential sprinklers. We still have issues relative to improving reliable communications and personnel accountability on the fireground. We still have serious divisions in equipment, staffing, and culture that prevents borderless, closest-unit dispatch and quicker response in some areas of our country. Perhaps these challenges are just part of the human condition as we make the best of an imperfect world filled with imperfect people. Perhaps we will always have them to deal with in one form or another.
I wonder what issues will be addressed at the IAFC’s 2110 conferences? What do you think the issues will be? The work of those fire service leaders before us has helped create many of the advancements we enjoy today. What should we be taking care of right now that will make life better for future generations of fire chiefs and firefighters? Regardless of what fire service concerns are debated in a hundred years, there are a couple of things I’m fairly certain about:
1] We’ll have come a long way, but will still be confronting some of the same issues.
2] Fire chiefs will still like to goof off.