In many World War II movies, there is a scene in which an individual in combat receives a letter from a loved one back home announcing that the combatant’s mate had found a new companion and was interested in ending the relationship. Given the dramatic fashion of movies, the person who receives the “Dear John” letter often then becomes a combat casualty shortly, or suffers some other tragic setback.
This got me thinking the other day that maybe we ought to reverse the Dear John letter syndrome. Today, a significant number of building fires are extinguished before they destroy lives and property. However, other fires wreak havoc, and in some cases the outcome is not much different than in those World War II dramas — someone pays the ultimate price.
When such fires occur, we ask the victims for lots of information. We want to know everything there is to know about who they are, as we dutifully fill out the NFIRS document. But, whatever happens to that information? More importantly, are these reporting mechanisms being used to build allies? Perhaps we ought to take a more direct approach. I know that there are a lot of fire departments that have service cards that are distributed at the end of incidents. These service cards often are given to property owners and ask a few simple questions that usually center on whether the person was satisfied with the performance and service of the department. These service cards then really are more about us than they are about them.
I suggest that we reverse that scenario and take the opportunity every time we respond to a fire to communicate directly with the property owner and tell them the truth about what really happened. What would happen if we started sending letters to everybody whose home caught fire with a brief reminder that early notification resulted in timely dispatching of the fire department and a rapid response time, both of which made a significant difference in their outcome? Such a letter could sound something like the following:
We are sorry that you recently experienced a fire in your dwelling. However, our investigation revealed that a smoke detector was activated early on in the event, which resulted in your notification of your fire department so that we could respond to your location in a timely fashion.
Our department’s goal is to respond to 90% of our emergencies within a 5-minute response time. In your particular case, that is exactly what occurred.
As always, we are here to serve and are grateful that you had a smoke detector in your home that resulted in our ability to demonstrate a positive outcome.
Sincerely, the Fire Chief
Or, how about we start sending letters to people who had successful fires that were controlled by residential sprinklers? It could go something like this:
Let me be the first to express my condolences about your experience of having a fire yesterday. However, the fact that your apartment possessed an automatic sprinkler system resulted in the fire being contained within the area of origin. This is important because our experience is that fires confined to the area of origin seldom result in significant property loss. Moreover, automatic sprinklers are extremely important in reducing the loss of life to accidental fire.
While you may not have been totally aware of the existence of the sprinkler and its role in your fire, we hope you are ultimately satisfied that your family and your possessions have been spared.
I am not sure how many different kinds of letters you creative writers can author. But any Dear John or Dear Jane letter should remind the recipient of four key truths, as follows:
- That rapid response of firefighters and apparatus is crucial in achieving a positive outcome;
- The smoke detectors are vitally important in clearly identifying that a problem exists;
- The automatic fire sprinkler systems dramatically restrict a fire’s growth;
- That the chance of a positive outcome increases exponentially when all of these factors exist.
Maybe we won’t send such letters in the aftermath every fire. Maybe you will have to exercise some discretion. Perhaps you’ll send letters only when you are sure that the property owner had a positive experience. But, the idea remains. Communicate with John and Jane so that they can join the ranks of those people who clearly know that risk mitigation does work.
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