“I Can’t Save You, But I’ll Die Trying.”

AT MY FIRST FIRE I almost killed another firefighter. I was ashamed of myself, sick in the stomach because I didn’t know what I was doing and I was dangerous. Two years later I graduated with the highest academic score from the District of Columbia Fire Department Recruit Class 249, because the fire service is a life-and-death occupation with no room for error.

You believe firefighters will come save you, your children,and your property if there is a fire. Firefighters also believe they can save you and have been getting injured and killed trying to do so from Ben Franklin’s time to today.

In February 1974 Laurel Volunteer Fire Department in Maryland responded to seven civilian fire deaths in three home fires; all the victims were dead before the alarms were received. I felt helpless because all of our equipment, training, skill, and macho could not save them. There had to be a better way, so I became chair of the Fire Prevention Committee.

In 1975 the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department received the Maryland State Firemen’s Association’s Fire Prevention award for its fire safety home inspection and home smoke detector campaign. In 1976 the Washington, D.C., Mayor’s Office asked me, a D.C. firefighter, to help the city address the fire problem. The cities campaign was initiated as a result of several fatal fires in neighborhoods where the closest fire companies had been closed due to rolling brown-outs from budget cuts. Washington, D.C., was the first city to have a mandatory smoke-detector ordinance for all existing and new residential occupancies and a training program for all firefighters on how to educate the public about smoke detectors.

In 1978 I was detailed to the National Fire Academy to develop and conduct the Smoke Detector Training Program. This course was created to help fire departments nationwide implement campaigns to promote the installation of residential smoke detectors. Smoke alarms have helped reduce fire deaths nationwide. Today, when there is a home fire death most of the time there are no working smoke alarms. When I visit my children and grandchildren I check the smoke alarms. Sometimes I have to change the batteries or install new smoke alarms. Our smoke alarm work is not done.

The purpose of the National Fire Academy is to “advance the professional development of fire service personnel and other persons engages in fire prevention and control activities” (PUBLIC LAW 93-498-OCT. 29, 1974). This is a purpose I committed most of my adult career to. The NFA is our Harvard, West Point, and Top Gun schools all rolled into one. When the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial was built
in 1981, the importance of the NFA’s purpose became evident and visceral to me. As I drove onto campuses each morning, most of the time the flags were at half-staff indicating another firefighter had been lost. There are 3,838 (1981 to 2014) names on the memorial. About a hundred names are added each year except for 343 names added as a result of 9/11.

Firefighter Brian Hunton is one of those names. He was a National Fire Academy graduate who fell out of his fire truck in 2005 on the way to a house fire; he did not have his seatbelt on. I cried and felt ashamed. We have a hard time getting firefighters to buckle their seatbelts because they believe seatbelts will slow them down and they will not be able to save civilians. Some states even exempt firefighters from using seat belts.

Captain Robin Broxtermen was scheduled to attend my NFA course. When I leaned of her loss I cried. Her fire department lent me a helmet; Robin attended the class for two weeks posthumously and received her National Fire Academy Certificate.

From the beginning of my career I have rejected the philosophy that firefighter injury and death is part of the job. And I have feared the fact that citizens rely on me to come save them from fire when I know I will fall short of that expectation. We all must do our best when it comes to fire safety and we can all do better.

This book is about the journey to answer my fire-service calling. After forty-five years of learning what to do next and trying to do better, I hope this book helps save the lives of my neighbors and my firefighting family.

–Dr. Burton A. Clark EFO

DO YOU KNOW there are 1.1 million firefighters and 32,000 fire departments in the United States of America? About eighty percent are volunteers, and twenty percent are paid. More Americans die from fire then all other natural and man-made disasters combined annually, and firefighting is one of the most hazardous occupations. If you are a civilian reading these statistics you might not know this information; if you are a firefighter you will. Each reader will have a preconceived notion of what firefighters are, what they do, and why they do it. Your perceptions may change after reading this book. The individual articles came out of my experiences with specific incidents that compelled me to look deeper at myself and the fire service discipline that I love.

After forty-five years in the fire service, I have concluded, “I can’t save you, but I will die trying!” I come to this reality as a result of being part of the American Fire Culture for almost five decades. As such I can trace my fire-service roots to Ben Franklin; my father and mother; the Kentland, District
of Columbia, Laurel, and Mt. Airy fire departments; and the National Fire Academy. My journey is reflected in the forty-five essays in this book. Each is the result of some significant emotional event I experienced, what I learned, and my attempt to influence the readers and my fire-service colleagues.

If there is such a thing as destiny, I was destined to be a firefighter before I was born. My father was a fireman in the US Army in 1941, stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. One of my first toys (I still have it) was a ladder truck I received at three or four years of age. Today that toy is an antique and considering I just turned sixty-five years old and just retired, I may be in the same category.

Becoming a firefighter was destiny; being a writer was not. Some even thought it would be impossible for a child who initially could not read and write. Today, I would be classified as a learning-disabled student. When I was in school they just told my mother that I was lazy; Mom did not believe them.
I will make sure my schools get a copy of this book for their libraries.

The universities that admitted a below-average student deserve credit for helping me work at being a scholar. Thank you Strayer, Montgomery, Catholic, Nova Southeastern, and John Hopkins; I am grateful to all my professors.

The fire service has been good to me. It has given me all I need according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The fire service has given meaning to my life. Putting this collection of essays together in a book is the continuation of my fire-service journey. It is a tribute and a way for me to say thank you to all the individuals and organizations I have interacted with along the way.

I hope this book helps you think, feel, and learn more about the American Fire Culture from one firefighter’s experiences. Whether you are a firefighter or civilian you are an important part of our fire culture—past, present, and future because lives are at stake.


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