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Firefighting has a relatively long and complex history in the United States. From the end of World War II, the position and development of American firefighting have been impacted by a variety of social, political, and economic changes. However, the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement had the most profound impact on the development of this profession. This essay aims to outline how the social and political events had impacted the lives of firefighters in the times of Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, as well as to explore the current opportunities and challenges faced by American firefighters.
The Cold War
The Cold War was a significant period in the history of United States. The threat of a new world war prompted the government to undertake preventive efforts to ensure the country’s readiness for a significant military conflict. The Cold War propaganda affected all citizens. For instance, according to Rawnsley (2016), many families were enrolled in survival training, which provided people with first aid, firefighting, and rescue skills, thus preparing them for a possible attack.
The militarization was at the core of the United States’ civil defense strategy, which affected people from a wide variety of occupations. For the firefighters, militarization has led to a shift in working demographic: “By 1960, over 60 percent of the nation’s firefighters were veterans of the military, creating greater cohesiveness in firefighters’ occupation and binding work groups to work more tightly together” (Tebeau, 2012, p. 337).
Civil Rights Movement and Affirmative Action
The Civil Rights movement created yet another significant demographic shift in the profession, as African American workers gained access to employment in municipal offices; by 1990s, over 13 percent of firefighters were African Americans (Tebeau, 2012). Changes in the demographics of fire departments raised many issues, including discrimination and impaired cohesiveness of working groups.
This led to some important fire department cases that affected the image of the profession on a national level. For instance, the controversy over the New Heaven fire department affirmative action was largely covered in the news and other media. The case of Ricci vs. DeStefano was initiated after the New Heaven fire department discarded the results of a written promotion test that had disproportionately excluded black firefighters (Sarat, 2014).
Affirmative action was taken by the fire department to avoid discrimination claims from African American applicants; however, white firefighters who could have received a promotion applied to the court, arguing that the withdrawal of the test was unfair and violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (Sarat, 2014). The case received national attention and sparked similar issues in other areas of the country.
Conclusion: Current Challenges
The two main issues that affect the work of firefighters in the contemporary world are terrorism and technological development. After the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, the role of firefighters in counterterrorism efforts has changed. The search and rescue efforts that followed the attack required the cooperation of all available responders, including paramedics, law enforcement, and firefighters. Being equipped with crucial knowledge and skills, firefighters of many US fire departments are now expected to participate in relief efforts following both natural and human-made disasters, including terrorism.
The technological development also affects the role of firefighters. New technologies that assist in fire-fighting, for example, are likely to require training and expertise, whereas new building technologies and materials can either reduce or increase the number of house fires. Overall, there are many factors that influenced the development of firefighting over time, and the profession will most likely develop further due to the current trends and challenges.
Rawnsley, G. D. (2016). Cold-War propaganda in the 1950s. New York, NY: Springer.
Sarat, A. (Ed.). (2014). Civil rights in American law, history, and politics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Tebeau, M. (2012). Eating smoke: Fire in urban America, 1800–1950. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press.