Burt Clark is a troublemaker and a maverick. Furthermore, he is a bane to those enamored with the stereotypical hard-drinking and smoking firefighter portrayed in the past by such movies as Backdraft and Ladder 49 and to a profession where the highest form of honor is a line-of-duty (LODD) death with full military honors. No, Dr. Clark is not one of this ilk. Rather, he, as exemplified throughout his long tenured career in the fire service and as faculty at the National Fire Academy, is one who has and continues to reexamine the long established culture of the fire service, with a passion for making it safer, more efficient, and more professional.
Dr. Clark’s monograph is a collection of essays and articles, published over the course of almost 40 years in the fire service. During this time, he questioned such relevant issues as LODDs, advocated for seatbelt use in fire apparatus, and became a champion for the calling of Mayday (call for help) among firefighters. His writing is an in-your-face approach to critical issues in the fire service with respect to safety, performance, and even to the very roots of the fire-fighting culture. His writings challenge the heart of the fire-fighting profession, both volunteer and career; and his words should not be taken lightly or brushed off for the fear of injuring one s feelings. Such is the aim of someone who has the foresight to propose, nay demand, a reevaluation of a noble profession.
Clark asks why firefighters die and even challenges the classification that their deaths are considered LODDs (or its equivalent, KIA killed in action). Rather, he proposes using the Wikipedia term occupational fatality 1 as an indication that something went wrong (p. 55). If not a scholarly choice for a source, nevertheless, the phrase poses a query that penetrates to the core of the fire service. Terminology notwithstanding, Clark challenges the idea that dying is part of the profession.
This approach runs counter to what past (and present) fire-service personnel are ingrained to believe when entering the profession firefighters go to work, and some do not always come home. Moreover, he contends that we, in the profession, know the answer, but may lack the collective courage (p. 62) to make this a reality. Such opinion is seldom heard, one would guess, at the firehouse coffee table.
Beyond the LODD argument, the author examines two critical but often overlooked issues relative to firefighter safety: wearing seatbelts and calling Mayday. Clark has long been the leading advocate for fire personnel wearing seatbelts, and his creed is founded upon no new research, rather the obvious seatbelts save lives. His advice comes with a simple order: Put on your seatbelt (p. 88). The irony, as Clark sees it, is the fact that we in the fire service, who are dedicated to saving lives, do not always, let us say, practice what we preach. The greater question here is what can be said about the fire service when we must be told to practice safety?
The author takes a somewhat different approach when calling Mayday. Although not as commonplace as seatbelt use with regards to existing fire department standard operating procedures, Clark noted back in 2001 that NFPA® 1001, Standards for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications (1997), did not even mention the term. Over a decade later, NFPA® 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety, has come to address the issue. In fact, the standard s nomenclature included Mayday directly because of Clark s efforts. As a side note, there were those from the NFPA® who actually expressed concern over the use of the term, arguing that it might have jeopardized the safety of military pilots should other agencies overhear the term in the case of a firefighter emergency. Due largely to Clark’s communication with Rear Admiral Ken Venuto, United States Coast Guard, Chairman of the National Search and Rescue Committee, the potential problem of radio communication was addressed with the simple determination that fire-department radio frequencies are not the same as those used by the military. The logical was simply made obvious, thanks to Clark.
The larger issue, as the author points out, is the stigma (his word) associated with requesting a Mayday, the failure of which could result in a firefighter death or injury. This begets the author’s most serious and revealing view of the fire service. In the author’s own words:
There is little or no accountability, responsibility,or discipline for firefighter death or injury from the fire service, elected officials, or government agencies. There are no consequences for safety misconduct. Because, we have convinced others and ourselves that firefighter death and injury is just part of the job. (p. 31)
Harsh and incriminating words from the pen of a 40-year veteran of the fire service.
Firefighter deaths are part of the job, so many would say. What raises Clark’s ire is the predisposition for fire personnel to accept this belief. This, in large part, comes from the organizational culture of the fire service, the topic of Dr. Clark’s latest research.
The phrase organizational culture stems from the work of former Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, Edgar Schein, who explained the term as a pattern of shared assumptions, learned by a group. Clark’s translation is simply, “Why we do what we do” (p. 38). So what does this all mean to the fire service? We must make a serious effort to change our behavior, especially considering the fact that “not following the rules is part of our fire culture,” and worse, that “society gives us permission not to follow the rules” (p. 45). According to Clark, words that define a firefighter’s organization culture are go fast, close calls, wet, take risks, injury, and death. These beliefs about his or her job have been passed down by firefighters from generation to generation and continue to drive occupational behavior. This culture is the core of Clark’s research and a disturbing one at that. Furthermore, such culture, Clark contends, cannot be changed all at once, rather behaviors can only be changed one at a time.
Years ago, this reviewer came upon a now much referenced quote from an article written by the Chief of the London Fire Brigade, Eyre Shaw, 2 United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century. His words, uttered well over a century ago, foresaw grim consequences for the fire service if its members were not adequately prepared for the profession. Experience was not enough to guide performance. Instead, Shaw called for a professional knowledge for the country’s fire personnel. It is ironic that almost 150 years later Burton Clark is echoing the same cry under the umbrella of leadership.
The fire profession is lacking the proper direction. Some firefighters remain mired in the archaic we always do it that way shibboleth of consensus and experience, despite the efforts of those who think outside of the proverbial box. Clark’s monograph demands a reevaluation of our profession, what we do, how we act, and most important of all, how we think. As this reviewer wrote previously, Clark is a troublemaker. He challenges us in his words to “see the light and be the light” (p. 303). It is our absolute responsibility to provide such illumination and it begins with reading his book.