Climate Change and term "Firefighter"
I remember growing up listening to the fire radio in our living room, recognizing my father’s strained voice as he commanded his men through smoke and flame. I remember the small wafting through the living room at 7:45 the mornings he came home; the hint of campfire would linger for almost an hour.
It was these memories that caused me to stand in that fire hall a small Midwest community all those years ago wondering if they had room for me. And they did.
Those first few weeks I dreamed of the pager going off so I could rescue a beautiful woman from a burning building… and then the first real call came. Tornadoes. Lots of them. And then there was debris. And tree limbs. And power lines.
There was no beautiful woman in a soft gown hanging from a window that was billowing smoke. There was no heroic climb up a ladder as the news crews gazed on, filming my heroic death-defying climb.
Had I known what I know now, I would not have been shocked. For almost a decade the role of the fire department had already been changing in this country. After I moved from the house in my early teens, my father had transitioned to a rescue rig and the television show “Emergency” was all the rage. I had been under the impression that Johnny Gage and Roy Desoto had chosen to answer medical calls rather than battle flames like their other firehouse mates.
I blame much of this on climate change.
Before you roll your eyes, I am not referring to my experience with the tornadoes and the terminology that causes arguments every day across the country regarding electric cars and greenhouse gasses. I am referring to real climate change. The change in the political climate that has created civil unrest after each questionable (or not so questionable) arrest or shooting.
I am talking about the change in the community climate that has diminished respect for responders and has created rifts between the community and those that have sworn to protect them. There once was a climate of safety and friendliness that caused young children to gravitate to the bay doors of a firehouse so they could sit with the firefighters and listen to their stories and dream of one day being heroes but that climate has changed and now firehouses have become fortresses with security systems and the firefighters are safely locked away until that day in October when they visit the local Kindergarten.
So many climates have changed.
Even the climate of our highways have changed. Peak-hour traffic congestion is an inherent result of the way our modern society now operates and so fire trucks are responding to more accidents. Add in a communication climate change and we can discuss the end result of texting and driving.
The very climate of transportation has caused a problem. From 1980 to 2000, 1.2 more automotive vehicles were added to the vehicle population of the United States for every 1.0 person added to the human population. The nation’s human population is expected to grow by around 60 million by 2020—possibly adding another 60 million vehicles.
There were over 5 million police-reported car accidents in the U.S. in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and 43% of car accidents resulted in injuries, which equals out to four car-accident injuries per minute. That is a lot of fire calls.
The climate of emergency medicine in the field has changed so much that most cities and villages are understaffed and overwhelmed when it comes to EMS personnel.
As the economic climate changes we see more violence and with more violence comes more shootings, more threats, more standoffs, more shootings and more calls. Our healthcare climate has also changed and those that have fallen through the cracks are resurfacing in violent or at least dangerous situations that require the paging of law enforcement, EMS and fire combined.
As the national healthcare climate changes, we experience more and more medical calls as a whole because of the changing status to an aging population and uninsured or under-insured people who wait until there is an emergency to deal with a medical issue.
The last statistic I could find stated that only about 5 percent of calls that fire departments respond to involve fires, but about 65 are medical calls, and this was according to the National Fire Protection Association.
And of course, there is climate change. Whether or not you believe in “climate change”, there has been a change in our environmental climate causing shifts and changes over the last several years that have created situations such as the Joplin tornado, the recent cold weather blast in New England, Hurricane Harvey and so many more instances of fire departments responding to weather related incidents.
The result of all this is that fire departments have become “all hazards” departments, with firefighters desperately trying to cross-train to respond to fires, accidents, weather related disasters, terrorist attacks, domestic calls, hostage situations, school shootings, chemical spills, train derailments, construction accidents, emergency medical incidents, hazardous materials events and more.
If you are lucky, and they have a free moment, many will still attempt to get your cat out of the tree.
It’s a new world of changing climates and while I have no idea why we call them “fire”fighters anymore, I am glad they exist and wonder what the world of response will look like in twenty years. While I would like to see my youngest children follow my footsteps, it appears that those footprints will no longer be there and it will be a brave new world with new agencies and departments that have been created to combat the new climates.