One world: Learning lessons and sharing ideas
“Putting the wet stuff on the red stuff” is one of the fire service ten commandments (origin Alan Brunacini) and is true for all fire services across the globe dealing with fires. How each service manages to control incidents depends on a wide range of factors – some physical, some economical and some environmental – means that despite a unity of purpose, the way incidents are managed can be different within each different national boundary. Fortunately, fire services tend to have more in common than is different between each national service and good ideas can sometimes be exchanged to the benefit of the global fire community.
Nonetheless, differences exist and exchanges of ideas across boundaries can benefit all parties. However, conduits for that exchange must first exist. While cross fertilisation of tactics, equipment and technology advances among economically similar countries, a wider audience for benefitting from innovation can be found through engaging and working with some less obvious nations.
The usual presumption is that the flow is all one way from what the World Bank defines as ‘middle income countries’ (MICs) to ‘lower income countries’ (LICs). There can, however, be effective ideas and techniques that can flow the other way – more natural solutions to bush and wildfires that require low inputs and are consequently less environmentally harmful such as selection and management of crops and plantations and use of animals grazing to reduce fire loading. Sharing ideas is a useful tool: efficiencies, effectiveness and an investment in international research and development can produce advantages over a wide area and help inequalities in service levels and outcomes. As a base line it can be useful to assess how services operate across the world and the context in which they operate.
Fire Deaths Per Head
Just how diverse the world is in context of fire service activity is exposed through considering the statistics collected by the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CITF) as the basis. For example, from their survey of fire deaths per head rates in 34 countries, Russia is the worst performing country with 5.9 fire fatalities per 100,000 while the best are Singapore (0), Vietnam and the Netherlands (0.1), Brunei and Myanmar (0.2) and Egypt and Ireland (0.3). While the number of countries responding to their various surveys, the assumed, perhaps stereotypical, correlation between climate and fire deaths (ie, warmer climates have fewer heating requirements so there are fewer domestic fire deaths) is interesting in that the anomalies – Ireland and the Netherlands are temperate – and Mongolia at 1.6 deaths per 100,000 seem to indicate there is not always a direct cause and effect associated with climate and other, more nuanced, factors are at play. In any event, annual numbers of fire deaths are relatively small and so liable to distortion by small variations.
These differences can stem from a whole range of factors including the societal make up, demographics, national governance structures and cultural issues. There are, after all, 193 countries, each with different views on their nation and the rest of the world and the relative importance of fire when faced with the multitude of other tribulations facing them.
The fundamental purpose of a fire (and rescue) service of any nationality is to protect life, property and, to a lesser, but growing extent, the wider environment. How this can be achieved and the techniques and tactics to achieve that will vary according to each nation state’s doctrinal approach to this purpose and, most importantly, the funding available to match the overarching aim with its achievement. The relative importance given to fire and rescue can very much depend on cultural attitude towards life, economy and the cost of protection.
In some nations, particularly those more sensitive to the risks to life, some would say overly sensitive, provision of fire and rescue services is relatively generous. Studies have shown that the perception of the risk of fire is disproportionate to the number of fire deaths when compared with other risks. The actual risk of the chances of dying in a fire is dwarfed by other risks in many countries. Take the issue of smoking as a comparator: in 2019, the United States had 3,704 fire deaths (1.1 deaths per 100,000 population), Russia 8,559 (5.8), Singapore 1 (0.0), Great Britain 317 (0.5) and the Netherlands 22 (0.1). By contrast, the figures for deaths from smoking related diseases are, per 100,000: 92, 125, 37, 90 and 88 respectively. This means between 20 and 900 times as many people die from smoking related disease as from fire. It could be argued that in terms of public benefit, smoking cessation programmes have a greater potential to save some of the eight million people who die each year from tobacco related causes compared with the potential reduction in fire deaths.
That said, however, the number of fire deaths is not insignificant and can be reduced. In fact, across the planet, fire death rates had reduced by more than 37 per cent globally in 2019 compared with 1990*, a resounding international success. Some countries have been more successful in reducing fire death rate than others. For example, France has reduced the number of fire death rates across all ages by around 60 per cent (261 deaths in 2019), while others such as Mongolia have managed to reduce the rate by only 18 per cent (54 deaths in 2019). Global awareness of the relatively simple measures needed to help prevent fire within the community has undoubtedly led to this massive reduction across the planet.
As a measure of the growing awareness across the globe (based on a stereotypical assumption that in LICs, there was no fire prevention-based activity until the MICs discovered it!) It is possible that culturally ingrained prevention existed before it was discovered, although studies are limited in this area. On the ground, it is possible to find programs of prevention not only in MICs with their relative abundance of wealth, research and mechanisms to engage with the community, but also in countries such as Nigeria where fire death rates have plunged by 40 per cent since 1990.
Nigeria’s Plunging Fire Deaths
In terms of fire and rescue capability, Lagos State (population 16 million) has 16 fire stations served by around 700 firefighters and support staff. Nigeria has its own Fire Service Act (2004), which details constitution, governance, powers of ministers and firefighters as well as the type of emergencies they will attend. Training is a key section of the Act and the service may secure ‘the efficient training of members of the fire service’. The tactics and techniques used at incidents in Nigerian conurbations would be familiar to all firefighters across the world: interior operations usually using water (provided from open sources or hydrants or water tankers in more remote areas) in domestic and other structural fires. Defensive techniques are used to contain and control fires in the open including those involving areas of improvised dwellings, such as shanties.
A particular problem in the oil rich state is the illegal ‘tapping into’ the numerous pipelines sending petroleum and its productions to national and international distribution centres. There have been frequent incidents where inadvertent ignition of ‘free’ petrol has led to large numbers of dead and injured. The fires themselves have been extinguished through a combination of pipe isolation and foam attack. Prevention of these accidents through improved security and vigilance and making communities aware of the risks through prevention campaigns will hopefully reduce the risk of occurrences but the Nigerian fire services are equipped to deal with such events. Heavy investment and legal and commercial imperatives to provide protective services in the petrochemical industry means that specialist resources are also available (though not always immediately) to deal with such incidents and support state fire services.
Taking a wider perspective, national services will always be categorised into urban/suburban services and the more remote rural services as in most countries, economic factors dictate that provision of resources is made on a risk/cost benefit basis. Whether in affluent nations such as Australia, or more financially austere countries, this division will impact on tactics and the equipment used. Large swathes of the world are formed of heath, scrub or savannah and even within the permafrost regions nearer the poles, wildfires can occur. When remote, they can be allowed to freely burn repeating nature’s way of change and regeneration. The impact on the climate can be significant but sometimes preventing the annual ‘fire season’ outbreaks can just allow the fire load to be stored for future combustion. If the crop is valuable or where the fire occurs near the urban/wildland interface the problem is more challenging and existential.
The tactical options facing firefighters may be limited by the equipment that is cost effective or affordable for that fire department. The use of aircraft for water bombing may be effective but may not be an option in many countries due to cost. In extreme circumstances, firefighting may sometimes be limited to holding back a flame front just to provide time for evacuation of downwind dwellings and towns. Of course, this tactic has also been used on many occasions in recent years, particularly at fires in the western USA (Yosemite, Malibu, Laguna Beach), Canada and Australia, as well as in southeast Asia including Borneo and Indonesia where forest fires were so intense they created a haze that resulted in a diplomatic row breaking out.
While ‘throwing money’ at the problem can help, low tech/low-cost solutions are possible that may also reduce the overall impact on the environment. Positive wildland management techniques evolved over the last two centuries, often to increase the value of exploitation of natural resources (by colonial powers) have led to today’s fire regimes that aid species diversity and protect the wider ecology and biodiversity. This is manged through the use of several dozen methods including techniques such as ‘patch mosaic burning’ and imitating natural fire processes to replicate a cycle of growth and localised burns. While MICs spend a great deal on research for the best way to provide a long-term solution for the issue of wildfires, existing practices used for decades if not centuries in many sub-Saharan and Asian nations can help provide ideas and techniques against what is almost certain to be a worsening threat to the planet.
Fire Service Structures
Interestingly enough, the things that all fire services have in common are more numerous than the differences. Legislation that supports the services are very similar and many countries’ laws have moved in the last 20-30 years to change with the widening role of the fire service. Road traffic accidents, while always being a role of most services (if not the fire service then who else?) has not always explicitly featured in the legal requirements for the service.
While most services form part of a local or central government structure, some services are an extension of the armed forces, as is the case in Brazil. France has a mixture of both: most areas are served by local fire services that cover the departments and are organised, overseen and trained by the Ministry of the Interior. Paris Fire Brigade is provided by the Army and Marseilles by the Marseilles Marine Fire Battalion – part of the French Navy. Many countries in south America, Asia and Africa initially used models of fire protection that were introduced by the former colonial powers in the previous two centuries. Many services have since evolved to be able to respond more effectively to the post-colonial demands of a more diverse, modern society.
Singapore Fire Service is developing a national culture that puts its citizens at the heart of resilience by enabling them to support the emergency services in responding to disaster. This aims to give citizens a great sense of ownership and accountability for their own safety and not always rely on the fire service as the first port of call. This ‘responsible citizenship’ approach in some respects goes back to a time when self-reliance was the norm and perhaps in many ways is more effective: if one is made responsible for one’s own safety, you tend to take prevention more seriously as well. This approach and a sense of civic responsibility is likely to be one of the reasons for such a low fire death rate in Singapore.
Similarity in Firefighting Tactics
Domestic firefighting tactics invariably follows the risks faced within a community. Where high-rise premises predominate, places such as Hong Kong, mainland China city centres, techniques for tackling these most challenging are developed locally but a firefighter from Birmingham, UK, would recognise firefighting approaches used in Shanghai, Tokyo or Kuala Lumpur. Likewise, firefighters in Athens, Greece, would appreciate the way firefighters in Athens, Ontario, deal with structure fires.
As much as the world is different, it is the same. Firefighting in Timbuktu, Tehran or Melbourne has many of the same challenges and the firefighting culture, despite language and other differences, remains recognisable to each other. Lessons can be learned from each other and new ideas developed and older ideas exchanged. With the post-Covid use of technology now allowing international meetings to take place from the comfort of your office or home, working across boundaries has now become possible for a wider range of people and organisations than ever. It is time to share the knowledge.
*University of Oxford, (2022): https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/fire-death-rates-by-age?stackMode=relative&country=~OWID_WRL
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