Firefighting and social capital

Flickr photo by Dawn M Armfield

Bob (Putnam) and I met with Steve McGirk Monday morning in Manchester, England.  Steve is the thoughtful and engaging Chief Fire Officer for the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

He discussed the evolution of firefighting in the UK (and elsewhere) and how prevention and social capital has come to be at the heart of what he does.  It’s a concept that one wouldn’t have thought about initially, but makes a world of sense after you hear it.

The heavy local concentration of fire stations originated in Britain during the Second World War.  England was under the blitz (from Germany) and tall buildings were being firebombed in Birmingham, Manchester, or elsewhere; without many fire stations close to all these tall buildings in order to respond rapidly, buildings would burn, igniting neighboring ones and soon consume huge resources and countless lives.  Fire stations were located based on perceived “peak” demand and thus most of the time, fire station personnel were not used very heavily.

Since then, there has been a sea change in fire response.  It’s very hard politically to get rid of any fire stations, but the stations and the firefighters have been put to new uses.  Through the use of smoke alarms (sometimes provided and installed free) and firemen knocking door-to-door and helping residents understand in advance what might cause fire risks, the numbers of fire responses, firefighting deaths, etc. is back to levels not seen since the 1950s, despite a dramatically larger population.  Steve, as do all firefighting CEOs in UK, has a statutory obligation to make fire prevention be at the heart of what they do.  Steve says that we have “come to understand in recent years that fires are not random, but more typically are the outcome of social and economic factors” – it is lifestyle and behavior that are at the roots of most blazes.

It was also interesting but morbid to hear Steve relate that the much more prevalent use of man-made materials in buildings has caused fires to reach scorching heats much faster than fires consuming natural materials.  Steve said that man-made materials typically reach 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in 5-6 minutes.  Unless firefighters can reach fires in 2-3 minutes, the fires are often fatal.  Since it is not practical to have enough fire stations to ensure this response time, it has similarly put pressure on fire stations to focus as much on prevention as on firefighting.

They have also repurposed some of the stations. Steve related the very interesting story of an unused old carriage house behind a Moss Side fire station being turned into a boxing ring, staffed by the firefighters.  “I’m not sure exactly where the money came from.  I don’t want to ask too many questions”, Steve says with a wink.  The boxing ring and the fire station efforts are a rare neutral ground for the local gangs.  A youth involved in a recent Moss Side shooting was sentenced to 2.5 years in the gym, and is now a strong prospect for the 2016 UK Boxing Olympic team.  Similarly, it’s hard to get some youth to do Boy Scouts in the UK because it’s seen as nerdy, but being a Fire Corps Cadet, which preaches many of the same values, is cool.

Steve notes that culturally, this change has not always been easy.  Some of the older firefighters joined to be macho and fight fires, and getting them out knocking on doors and talking with residents about fire safety has taken some active prodding and required him to be hard-nosed:  he’s told firefighters that if they don’t adapt to the new culture, their jobs are on the line.

One can see how such a community-based approach, which originated with “community policing”, has now started to spread to firefighting.  Steve believes that in the UK’s tight budget environment, Emergency Response needs to be the next frontier for this community-centric approach.  [Specific cuts are likely to emerge in the next month from David Cameron’s overall targets announced early this summer.] Emergency Response costs (ambulance and the like) have soared in recent years, and he thinks that if this were merged together with firefighting, they could similarly dramatically reduce the need for Emergency Response through an “ounce of prevention”.  Not all of his fire stations now have boxing clubs but they are increasingly spreading such clubs or finding other ways to bring the community into firestations.


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