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Public Administration: Fire Department in America Research Paper


Fire Department’s History in America

In the past 400 years, fires have caused a lot of havoc in America. Even though firefighting efforts could be traced to the 2nd century, firefighting in America traces to the 16th and 17th centuries (AFP 1). State-funded firefighting departments were nonexistent then. The only tangible firefighting efforts were either organized through volunteer efforts or private practice.

Privately-Run firefighting companies were very common because there was a financial incentive to make profits through insurance firms that paid firefighting companies. Privately-run firefighting companies, therefore, battled to outwit one another because the insurance companies only paid firefighting companies that arrived at the scene first, and extinguished the fire (AFP 1).

This system forced many firefighting companies to recruit employees who were not necessarily skilled in fighting fires, but strong enough to fight other firefighting personnel (from other companies) and protect their employer’s equipment (dogs were also used to protect firefighting equipment) (AFP 1).

The first real attempts of organized firefighting trace to 1630, in Boston, when fire departments hired skilled firefighting inspectors (AFP 4). The skilled firefighters provided a change to the management of fire departments, which ordinarily depended on unskilled labor (AFP 5). The inspectors patrolled the city at night to ensure that the citizenry respected firefighting laws. Any person found to have contravened the law received a fine from the fire inspectors.

The fire inspectors were also supposed to look out for any fires and organize a bucket brigade to fight the fire if there was any. Among the most notable rules introduced by the fire inspectors was the legal provision that “no man shall build his chimney with wood, or cover his house with thatch” (AFP 5).

The government intended these laws to serve as a policing tool that would reduce the incidence of fires. However, because most of the equipment for fighting the fires were ineffective and archaic, firefighting was not as effective as expected by the citizens.

Later, about 1736, Benjamin Franklin started urging people to establish professional firefighting departments (AFP 7). The development of the fire engine marked the need for a professional firefighting department. Even though many fire-fighting companies were reluctant to accept the fire engine, citizens forced these companies to use them.

For example, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the citizens forced the fire department to adopt the firefighting engine (AFP 7). Consequently, many firefighting types of equipment modernized and were distributed throughout most cities.

For example, a doctor, William Channing, developed the first fireboxes after the telegraph technology became prominent (the firefighting boxes were used to sound fire alarms) (AFP 8). In 1832, hoses were also used to pull fire engines (AFP 8).

Through the modernization of fire-fighting equipment and the emerging need to have state-funded firefighting departments, Boston emerged as the first city in America to have a state-funded firefighting department. The need for state-funded firefighting departments increased after privately-funded companies let uninsured buildings to burn to the ground, but saved the insured buildings (AFP 8).

This inequality led to increased pressures from the public to have state-funded fire departments as a public service to its citizens. Most municipalities in America after that established firefighting departments as a public service (AFP 10). The firefighting departments provided several services to its citizens, including emergency firefighting services and rescue services (today, the operations of most firefighting departments span within a municipality or county) (AFP 10).

Fire Department’s Members, Ranks, Squads, and Teams

The organizational structures for fire-fighting departments do not differ much from the structure of the military or the police. For example, firefighting officers are sworn in as police officers or military personnel. Also, similar to the police, firefighting teams have the authority to enforce laws in an emergency (AFP 8).

Different countries have different roles and responsibilities of fighting officers. In America, the ranks of firefighters always span across the positions of a lieutenant to fire chief. Interestingly, firefighting officers symbolize their ranks using the color of their helmets. For example, the white helmet is symbolic of the lieutenant rank, while red helmets symbolize fire chiefs (fire chiefs may also be known as company officers) (Kemah Fire Department 8).

However, it is important to understand that the design or color of these helmets normally varies across different jurisdictions in America. Despite the above categorization of firefighting ranks, traditional ranking systems still apply in some jurisdictions. The traditional ranking structure was categorized into three positions – firefighter, sergeant (technician), the lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, division chief, deputy chief, and chief commissioner.

Since every ranking in the firefighting department respects the number of speaking trumpets associated with the rank (bugles), each of the three ranking structure is accorded a special number of bugles. The firefighter position has no bugles, but the lieutenant position has a bugle. Instead of the bugle, the sergeant position has got three chevrons (an alternative speaking trumpet).

The captain and battalion chiefs have got three bugles, while the battalion chief has got three bugles. The deputy and chief commissioners have got four and five bugles, respectively.

The nature of the fire department ranking structure often determines whether the firefighting department will be headed by a lieutenant or captain. The head of the team often presides over the firefighting department (usually known as a “company”).

The lieutenant, or the captain, often represents the most junior position in most firefighting departments in America, but because there are few state and federal company structures for defining the roles and responsibilities of every firefighting department, most fire departments in America pride in having a special departmental structure that resonates with their local needs (Kemah Fire Department 9).

Different units in firefighting departments are often known as squads. Even though many fire-fighting departments may have a squad in their departments, the roles of these squads often vary. For example, in some American jurisdictions, the “squad” and the “rescue squad” mean the same thing; however, in other jurisdictions, a squad and a rescue squad denote different responsibilities.

This is the case in New York because its firefighting department operates about seven squads, which undertake specialized functions in the department (such as managing hazardous materials). Still, in the New York Fire Department, the “rescue squads” (different from “squads”) are called when there are specialized and complicated rescue situations.

The “rescue squad” and the “squad” both operate under the wing of the Specialty Operations Command Unit. In many fire-fighting departments, the squad does not have the same type of responsibility as outlined in the New York Firefighting Department; instead, squads are merely emergency medical units that have members within the firefighting department, with a medical background. Los Angeles is one jurisdiction that outlines the activities of squads in this manner.

Fire department teams normally comprise these squads. Therefore every squad has a specific number of teams that work with them. Again, every fire department has a special structure for outlining the role of every team in the squad. Comprehensively, the effective coordination of the teams and squads (through the various ranks) outlines the effective coordination of the department.

Fire Department’s Responsibilities

Traditionally, the responsibilities of fire departments mainly comprised of firefighting duties. However, in the recent past, many fire-fighting departments have expanded their roles to include “emergency medical service (EMS), emergency management, homeland security management, hazardous materials response, and other emergency and non-emergency calls” (Flynn 3).

Besides ensuring that they meet their basic responsibilities or public service to the community, firefighting departments also perform inspection services (for example, to ensure buildings comply with fire safety standards), review plans and integrate the contribution of interested parties (third parties) in firefighting activities (Flynn 3).

Flynn identifies four main responsibilities of firefighting departments – “fire incident calls, emergency medical services (EMS), HazMat calls, and other calls such as service calls, or false alarms” (4). However, it is important to mention that the core responsibilities of firefighting departments vary across different jurisdictions. For example, some departments do not offer emergency medical services. Flynn (4) estimates that about 56% of America’s firefighting departments do not offer this service.

Since most firefighting departments have expanded their roles and responsibilities, some of their roles overlap with the roles of the police. For example, this paper already shows that firefighting departments, sometimes, have structural similarities with the police. Therefore, some firefighting roles, such as investigating arson attacks, may overlap with similar roles of law enforcement officers.

Besides, suppressing fires, offering emergency medical services, and investigating arson attacks, firefighting departments also provide an important service of educating the public about fire safety. This duty stems from the role of firefighting departments in relief liaisons.

Indeed, firefighting departments have a special responsibility of imparting knowledge to the community, regarding fire safety. For example, through the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), different fire departments in the US have participated in fire safety programs. Such programs have existed for a long time.

The participation of fire departments in such a program is also historical. For example, the New York fire department has participated in this program since 1905 (National Fire Protection Association 3). Through such programs, fire departments strive to reduce the burden of fires in the community by being pro-active. Visiting children in schools and teaching them about fire safety is among the most common activity that fire departments, in different jurisdictions, participate in.

Firefighting departments also have exclusive powers that allow them access to undertake their duties in most types of emergencies. For example, when a terrorist attack occurs, firefighters have a legal authority to intervene in the situation and respond to any type of emergency that may have occurred because of the terrorist attack. Also, firefighters enjoy the legal authority to intervene in most situations that may pose a danger to human safety or the protection of property.

These immense powers rank firefighters among the few professionals who can gain access to the property without any legal consequences. These powers, therefore, mean that it may be a criminal offense to prevent firefighters from gaining access to premises when there is an emergency. Comprehensively, the roles of firefighting departments have significantly expanded in scope and the traditional role of controlling, extinguishing, or suppressing fires only outline part of the job that firefighting departments do.

Fire Department’s Apparatus, Equipment, and Tools

Since fire departments often face different challenging situations in their work environments, they have different apparatus for work. Broadly, these apparatuses include aerial apparatus, rescue apparatus, wild-land fire apparatus, hazardous material apparatus, logistical support apparatus, water and foam-carrying apparatus, fireboats, fire trains, airport crash tenders, aircraft, and motorcycles (the list of apparatus may, however, expand beyond these examples).

Aerial apparatus may include turntable ladders, tower ladders, tiller ladders, hydraulic platforms, and aerial ladder platforms (Fairmount 3). The rescue apparatus may include heavy rescue vehicles, and “rescue engines.” Lastly, water and foam-carrying apparatus may include tanker trucks, hose layers, and foam tenders.

The choice of apparatus normally depends on a budget of the fire departments, their geographical locations, and the nature of the risks they face. However, almost all fire departments in America have a fire engine truck that mainly transports firefighters to the scene of the fire.

These fire engines also carry fire-fighting equipment like ladders, axes, and pike poles. The fire engine trucks, therefore, serve several purposes, including pumping water to quell fires, transporting firefighters to the scene of the fire, rescue services, and carrying fire-fighting equipment. Depending on the geographical location of the fire departments and the topography of the area, some fire departments may also use firefighting boats, airplanes, and fire trains.

Modern fire-fighting apparatus uses highly pressurized water that often creates a vaporous mist that has a more effective record for preventing the spread of fire. This technology has also been integrated into fire-fighting apparatus, such that the vaporous mist mixes with the normal water that is pumped through the hoses.

Besides the equipment and apparatus used in stopping the spread of fire, firefighters also need reliable firefighting tools to help them do their job more effectively.

Some of these tools are basic, and they include water resistant fire lights, fire helmets, fire gloves, fire resistant clothing, fire extinguishers, wild-land hand tools, structural hand tools, weather instruments, compasses, vehicle tools, knives, reforestation tools, and replacement parts (National Fire Fighter Corp 1).

Again, the choices of firefighting tools depend on the nature of risks that the fire departments face. For example, firefighters that work in areas that are prone to forest fires would prefer stocking a lot of reforestation tools, such as hoe parts and tree bags.

Fire Department’s Plans (Incident Command)

The incident command system is very important for the effective coordination of firefighting activities and the increase of firefighting safety. The incident command structure normally works by integrating the fire department’s command structure with organizational dynamics to improve the effectiveness of emergency responses (Fire Scope California 2).

The incident command structure comprises of several components, including the systematic development of the functional organization, multiagency adoption (across state and federal levels), applicability across all fire incidents, preservation of jurisdictional authority, the respect of a central command management structure, and the expansion and contraction of the command structure within organizational limits (Fire Scope California 2).

Regarding the command structure of the incident command system, it is important to understand that a simple incident may often outstretch the fire department if there is no strong command structure to manage such incidents.

Indeed, Fire Scope California says “The incident commander can be quickly overwhelmed and overloaded with information management, assigning companies, filling out and updating the tactical worksheets, planning, forecasting, requesting additional resources, talking to the radio and fulfilling all the other functions of command” (p. 18).

The purpose of maintaining the incident command structure is to support the activities of the fire department. For example, before additional ranking officers come to a scene of the fire, the incident commander may establish a command structure that coordinates all activities before the specialized team arrives. The incident command structure, therefore, defines who has the authority to undertake different tasks within the department (Fire Scope California 18).

However, the presence of this command structure does not exclusively outline the structure of authority within the department (the transfer of information may not be restricted within the chain of command). For example, a low ranking officer may receive instructions from a superior, but the officer may still share the findings with another officer in a different unit (Fire Scope California (18).

Most of the positions within incident command structures are dormant until there is a strong need to create them. For example, the incident command structure may be created only when there is an insufficient initial response to an emergency. When the incident command structure is created, qualified or specialized personnel are therefore dispatched to manage the emergency.

The transition from the initial response to a specialized response is often evolutionary. Different positions/tasks within incident command structures are only filled when there is a need to do so (Fire Scope California 18). In managing initial responses, Fire Scope California (18) says that the incident commander normally undertakes four functions – operations, logistics, planning, and administration.

During initial responses, different sections are filled on an evolutionary basis. The operations section is, however, an important initial response unit because it outlines the pillar of all other organizational activities that may occur in subsequent rescue operations (Fire Scope California 19). From the operations section, other levels of strategic planning are created.

In detail, the operations management level comes directly below the incident commander level. Under the operational level, there may be up to five branches of coordination. Up to 25 division groups support the branches, but task forces, strike teams, and single units (resources) support the divisions (Fire Scope California 18). Most of the operational plans for fire departments adhere to this structure.

Fire Department’s Trucks and Engines

Over time, the meaning of the term “truck” has evolved to mean specialized vehicles that are used by fire departments to undertake their duties. The term “engine” was specifically used to refer to the machine that pumped water from the trucks to the fire. Today, fire departments have integrated the terms, “fire” and “engine” (fire engine) to mean specialized vehicles that pump water in emergencies (Fairmount 1). Fire trucks, therefore, only symbolize vehicles that carry ladders and other firefighting equipment during emergencies.

Fire engines have got three main components, including water, a hose, and a pump. Unlike old water pipes that were rigid, modern pipes are easy to pull and store, because they are made of rubber. The deployment of such equipment is often eased by the presence of ladders that support easy access to such materials. However, the ladders are usually characteristic of the fire truck (not the fire engine) (Fairmount 1).

Occasionally, the entire body of the truck may be one giant coiled ladder. The ladder would then elevate the firefighter to a position that he can rescue a person. Depending on the design of the truck, the tip of the ladder may, or may not, have a nozzle.

The hoses may be one, or two, so that they create a master stream of water for quelling fires, especially at the top of high rise buildings. The importance of fire trucks, and their ladders, especially manifest in rescue services. Since some of these ladders may be very long and destabilizing to the truck, firefighters use outriggers to offer support to the truck (Fairmount 3).

Generally, the main difference between the fire truck and the fire engine is the fact that the fire truck does not have water reservoirs as fire engines do. Also, unlike fire engines, fire trucks have got extra equipment that the firefighters may find useful when managing big fires. For example, fire trucks have huge saws for cutting through ventilation pathways (in rescue operations).

The trucks may also have large gas pipes (for smoke injection), important rescue tools, and fire ground support tools (Fairmount 3). Regardless of the distinctions and the importance of the fire trucks and fire engines, their roles may overlap, especially in big fires.

Works Cited

AFP 2012, History of Firefighting. Web. 29 June. 2013. <http://www.afirepro.com/history.html>.

Fairmount 2013, Truck vs. Engine. Web. 29 June. 2013. < http://www.fairmountfire.org/truck-vs-engine.html>.

Fire Scope California 1994, Incident Command System. Web. 29 June. 2013. <http://www.firescope.org/ics-guides-and-terms/ICS%20SF.pdf>.

Flynn, Jennifer 2009, Fire Service Performance Measures. Web. 29 June. 2013. <http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/pdf/os.fsperformancemeasures.pdf>.

Kemah Fire Department 2013, Fire Department Traditions. Web. 29 June. 2013. <http://www.kemahfire.com/traditions.asp#Helmet_Color>.

National Fire Fighter Corp 2012, Fire Equipment, Firefighting Tools. Web. 29 June. 2013. <http://www.nationalfirefighter.com/index.php?cPath=20>.

National Fire Protection Association 1995, History Of The NFPA Codes and Standards-Making System. Web. 29 June. 2013. <http://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/pdf/historynfpacodesstandards.pdf>.

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