08/29/07 146 W - + 20 - 9 Cultural Comparisons

Firehouse.com reports this week on a Swedish firefighter and R&D engineer who presented a critical perspective of the American fire service. The article is also being bluntly discussed on this Firehouse forums thread. Whatever one's reaction to the Dr. Svensson's reported comments, the context poses a compelling question. What are the cultural differences between our ways and others? How do we fight or prevent fires differently than others?

Google finds this USFA article from 1997, Fire Death Rate Trends: An International Perspective. The 20-page report (available as both PDF and TXT) includes some very interesting perspectives on cultural approaches and attitudes toward fires, fighting fires, and preventing fires. Response time, national building codes, and fire prevention staffing differences are particularly fascinating.

What other comparative articles are out there? Here's one comparing PPE in Mexico, Hong Kong, and Essex, but, alas, it's not free.

I dug the article…the critical perspective one. Although I don’t believe the fire service to be “just a job”. If it were just a job not a single one of us would stop on the side of a traffic accident to help. Thats besides the point. I thought it pretty amazing that the Swedish Fire Service has only had 1 LODD in the last 7 years as compared to our numbers. They use 3-d Firefighting tactics or “Fog Attack”. One of those highly questionable ideas I put on the watch desk awhile back. Could their lower LODD rate be a direct result of said tactic? I don’t know enough about the Swedish side of things to say one way or another, but still find myself a fan of a properly used fog attack. Seems like something worth researching though. Without a doubt.
Flip (Email) (Web Site) - 08/30/07 - 03:16

This just happened last night. http://www.thebostonchannel.com/news/140..
Boston Fire lost 2 brothers last night.
Duke - 08/30/07 - 06:48

Go the the firehouse thread Flip and read the numbers. They have 10000 FF’s in their country where was have over a million. We have 32 times more people in our country than they do. Yet you are more likely to die in a fire in Sweden as a citizen than in the US. There are a lot of cultural differences including their building construction. It is all in that thread.
Mike - 08/30/07 - 09:54

OK.. to compare the US Fire Service to Sweden’s, to me, is apples to oranges. Compare these numbers from 2002:


Fire Incidents: 1,687,500
Deaths:* 3,426
Property Damage: $10.3 billion-$15.5 billion
Population (resident): 288,369,000
Area (square miles): 3,620,000

Fire Incidents: 27,000
Deaths: 137
Property Damage: 3.7 billion krona
Population: 8,950,000
Area (square miles): 174,000

They have 16,000 firefighters as compared to the US reported 1,136,650 firefighters. They cover a population roughly the size of New York City.

Did he bring up some good points or point? Yes. We do need to better attempt to lower the number of cardio related LODDs. Will we ever get rid of all cardio related LODDs? No. Some of them could not be prevented, they are related to family history. Our “aggressive” tactics must be paying off somewhere, since our fire incident to fire death rate (including LODDs for US) is much more favorable.

Again, I’m not totally discrediting everything he had to say… but I am certain that many different factors play into why our “numbers” are different on paper. Cultural differences, building construction, tactics, and emphasis placed on differing ideas (more emphasis on protecting lives).
Luke - 08/30/07 - 10:08

Facts are indisputable…statistics are pliable. I think Mark Twain said that.

You can make the numbers say anything you want. One person can make it out to be that we, as firefighters in the US, are reckless, overly aggressive, mavericks with a hero complex. You can take that same set of numbers and make the Swedes out to be a group of timid, scared to take a risk, wannabes.

Is either image correct? Not hardly. Just goes to show, some things that are important cannot be measured. And in the process, the measurements are wide open to interpetation.

Who said that? I said that.

DJ (Email) - 08/30/07 - 10:57

DJ… excellent post!
Luke - 08/30/07 - 11:47

Well said!
ewfd200 (Email) - 08/30/07 - 13:27

question to ask the swedish doctor – do they have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet?

what the swedish doctor also fails to mention is the swedish health care system, which is heavily socialized – we’d all be a lot healthier if we had the cradle to grave security of having all our health care expenses being nearly free
tarheelcanary (Email) - 08/30/07 - 15:35

Here’s a thought exercise. If we could create such a thing from scratch— say, picking and choosing from the many flavors of fire protection and prevention from around the globe— what would the ideal “fire culture” look like?

Obviously, we’d start with lowest possible loss/injury/death rates for civilians and responders as the desired outcome. No question there. National building codes would be good, with the strongest, safest, and most effective requirements possible. Birth-to-death fire education also comes to mind, where every age/class/education level was continuously lobbied on fire prevention and preparedness. What else?

What cultural attitudes would we choose? The Japanese-style shaming of those who cause (or experience?) fires would seem to compel citizens in the direction of prevention. But would that extend to life safety? Would a culture that attaches shame and stigma to fire victims find itself more tolerable of civilian injury or death? Would saving buildings become more important than saving bodies?

Carrying that a little farther or possibly further, would such a culture produce less-aggressive firefighters? (Which means exactly what? Firefighters who function more like… janitors? No heroics, no risk, just mitigating other peoples messes?)

What would our ideal firefighters look like? Physically, we’d want strong and fit, of course. And with the fewest possible lifestyle or genetic risk factors. (Dangerous line of thinking on the genetic front, right?) Psychologically, we’d want someone who could learn, who could learn to lead, and whose temperament was aligned to our prototyped culture.

What else?
Legeros - 08/30/07 - 18:40

“What cultural attitudes would we choose? The Japanese-style shaming of those who cause (or experience?) fires would seem to compel citizens in the direction of prevention. But would that extend to life safety? Would a culture that attaches shame and stigma to fire victims find itself more tolerable of civilian injury or death? Would saving buildings become more important than saving bodies?”

As long as we look on acts of negligence as ‘accidents’, then we can give up on ‘shaming people’. In 31 years I have yet to see an MVC not the result of negligence of some sort. Nor have I ever seen a building fire, save for a lightning strike (and a couple of those were questionable), that was not the result of negligence (or malice).

The term ‘accident’ suggests a random act of happenstance, or cosmic influence. Nope, we don’t like blaming people for their own misfortunes bought about by bad choices.

The Japanese culture of shaming folks who cause fires comes from their ever-so-intimate experience with burning cities (with a little help from a few B-29s). And I am sure that the European experience is pretty similar (think of London, Dresden, Hamburg, etc.)

As to the rest of it? Well, a lot of us would be looking for jobs. We would not need so large a suppression force because we would have the ideal fire prevention codes. And with the perfect building codes, we could be less aggressive, arriving on scene, analyzing risk factors and such, entering it into the computer, and out comes a plan. One that eliminates the potential of firefighter injury or death.

Pierce, Seagrave, E-One, and others would be making fewer fire trucks, and smaller ones to boot. That would lead to fewer turnouts, SCBA, etc.

You know, you could destroy an entire industry like this. Instead of a multitude of apparatus manufacturers, maybe we would follow the overseas model of a very few manufacturers.

DJ (Email) - 08/30/07 - 19:40

There was an interesting article in Fire Chief magazine in the 1990s. I’ve tried to find it, but it was before they developed electronic archives. It was a description of a Fire Department staff meeting in the future, when we’d got all the “values” and cultural things sorted out. The theme was that we’ve got it all upside down right now – we spend the bulk of our human and other resources on response and intervention, when it would really make more sense to do so on prevention.

The chief officer at the top, and the subordinates with the most clout, were the prevention folks. If operations had to respond to a call, it was considered a prevention failure and somebody had to explain why a fire had started, and why there weren’t systems to put them out, etc. The ops guys were unhappy because they never really had a chance at being chief of department – the prevention guys were the most important. It was really thought-provoking.

For years, I’ve also give thought to how the same paradigm could apply to EMS. How many 9-1-1 calls could we eliminate if we went to 1420 S. Wilmington Street every morning and took blood sugar checks and reminded the folks to take their diabetes and seizure medications?

Skip Kirkwood (Email) (Web Site) - 08/31/07 - 10:05

Skip that sounds great, then we can go and wake up some people at 7 am and tell them to stay up all day and get a job instead of sleeping all day and getting liquored up all night. That could help cut down on the 3am drunk calls!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not complaining just voicing my opinion on the night owls!!
Jason Lane - 09/01/07 - 00:55

I remember reading the Fire Chief article. I had not long finished my AAS in Fire Protection and I thought about the possibilities presented. That prevention would take a bigger role that suppression. The Republican in me at the time saw it as a way to reduce the costs of public safety and save the taxpayers some money. Oh, such an idealistic soul I was at the time.

Fast forward a few years. As an overworked and underpaid paramedic I saw that some of the current ways of doing things just was not working. Remembering the emphasis on ‘prevention’ activities in the mentioned article (and others), I thought about the following scenario-

A homeless individual consistently calls EMS to get in off of the street. Whether he was hungry, cold, or hot, he knows that calling 9-1-1, or having someone else call, will get him a ride to a warm/cool palce with food, and he won’t even have to pay for it. EMS crews get annoyed, as do fire crews, at the ‘repeat customer’.

Now, the ‘EMS Prevention Bureau’ goes to work. A quick trip to the local ED to re-allocate a couple of carton of milk, maybe a jello, and a bowl of cereal, or other like article, on a sporadic, semi-regular basis, and the calls go down. Throw in a couple of blankets and a dispoable pillow or two, and the calls cease entirely. I have not been to transport that individual since January. I still see him, but not at 0245.

Maybe not what the writers had in mind, but the same basic principle.

Outside the box.

You know, if we spend a little while during the daylight, outside of the station checking on some of these people, provide a little comfort, and we can reduce some of these calls. The same would apply to some of the other regulars.
DJ (Email) - 09/01/07 - 09:59

The USFA has released the latest edition of “Fire in the United States,” http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/statistics/repor... PDF document, 77 pages.

Executive summary notes “Even considering these positive trends [in reducing fire rates], the United States still has a major fire problem compared to other industrialized nations. The study and implementation of international fire prevention programs that have proved effective in reducing the number of fires and deaths should be considered.”
Legeros - 09/01/07 - 17:01

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