(Appeared in print as “The Perils of Prophecy”)
What happens to most prophets? Those who predict gloom and doom usually are rewarded with punishment, expulsion and ridicule. And history books are populated by a large number of individuals who met an ignominious fate for saying the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time.
But what does this have to do with fire protection?
Fire-protection engineer Rexford Wilson wrote the prophetic “Designed for Disaster,” in which he described the potential for major fire loss in Beverly Hills. NFPA published it, and most fire professionals who read it agreed with it. But no one seemed very excited about doing anything about it.
That is until Wilson’s prediction came true. Bel-Air actually caught on fire and became one of the most visible symbols of the modern American fire problem — the wildland-urban interface fire. (See video below.) Hollywood even made a movie about it.
But Bel-Air quickly was forgotten, eclipsed by a number of fires larger by an order of magnitude.
And politicians and special-interest groups still routinely deny the prophecies of catastrophic fires. They not only refuse to accept such prophecies, but they work to obscure the science and deny that such fire could ever happen again.
Political naysayers believe disaster just can’t happen where they are — even when the same conditions that were present in the Bel-Air fire are present at their location. Most of these naysayers won’t be around to accept responsibility for being wrong when disaster eventually does strike. Moreover, if they are around, they will deny any culpability by refusing to deal with issues from the past and blaming it all on current conditions.
Prophets make enemies of those who have something to gain by ignoring the prophesy. This is why many chief fire officers who attempt to explain the consequences of reducing fire protection often are criticized and accused of delivering the proverbial “burning-baby speech.”
So, what can be done to solve this dilemma?
Under some circumstances, certain events will repeat themselves time and again. So instead of prophesying gloom, start projecting reality. Fire-service leaders need to become a much more adept at analyzing fault trees and explaining probabilities and rely less on forecasting that people will die in their beds.
There are combined conditions that the fire service knows to be threats to life and property:
- Drinking and smoking
- Poverty and pack-ratting
- Open-flame and combustible decorations
- Poverty and unpaid energy bills
- Steep hills, dense fuels and houses without defensible space
- Wildland fires, combustible roofs, and lack of adequate access or water supply — particularly when combined with bad weather
- Small children, candles and dark closets
Each of those combinations has played itself out not once, not twice, but thousands of times across the landscape. And organizations can add other scenarios based on their experiences with fire. So, a fire chief isn’t wrong to mention them as negative outcomes to reduced fire-prevention efforts. Rather, they can serve as evidence that the American fire problem is alive and well, because human behavior hasn’t changed that much.
If there is any consolation for prophets in modern society, it’s that at the very least they no longer are doomed to execution or asked to drink hemlock as Socrates was. But if you are going to be an advocate, then arm yourself with every fact you can get your hands on. Don’t be accused of prophesying generics. If you are going to be condemned for making a prophecy, then pick one that is likely to occur because then you are likely to be right. Don’t be afraid of getting on the soapbox, but make sure that you have the best facts that money can buy.
Hopefully, you will be around long enough to say, “I told you so!”