How Can We Learn From Each Other – A Macro View

By Philip C. Stittleburg

Pride and curiosity. These are two traits that I have consistently seen in the fire service throughout the world, particularly in the volunteer sector. Pride in the work we do and curiosity about how others do it and how we can do it better.

It was pride that drove a young woman with a severely sprained ankle that I saw in Asunción, Paraguay, to run, not walk, with her colleagues across the parade field to receive the diploma marking her graduation from her year-long training to become a volunteer firefighter.

It was pride that led the volunteer firefighters of Chile to spend a week fighting a raging fire in Valparaíso – which destroyed at least 2,500 homes and left 11,000 people homeless – and then to refuse the government’s efforts to pay them. Despite not receiving any direct government support nationwide (just like their colleagues in Peru), they felt that being paid offended their honor.

And it was curiosity that caused the Austrian fire service to contact the U.S. State Department to talk about climate change and inquire how it might augment the volunteer segment of its fire service. I was puzzled by the connection between the two until I learned that Austria had suffered increasingly severe flooding on the Danube River in recent years, placing a heavy burden on their volunteers. Until then, I had not really recognized how climate change was affecting our profession.

Climate change has likewise been a factor in the enormous and devastating wildland fires that Australia has experienced, prompting that country to ask what needed to be done to bolster the volunteer fire force that forms a large and critical portion of its response resources.

That curiosity can lead to strange assumptions, though, as I learned when speaking with a firefighter in Nairobi, Kenya. He regularly read American fire service magazines and, seeing so many advertisements for fire equipment, he believed that all of our fire departments had all of the pretty stuff he was seeing. He could scarcely believe it when I told him that none of us had all of those things.

Curiosity, perhaps combined with a hint of desperation, caused Brazil to ask how it could establish a volunteer fire service sector, something that doesn’t exist there now in most of the country. I had anticipated that it would be a matter of building fire stations, equipping them, and training the volunteers. What I mistakenly assumed was that there was already some tradition of volunteerism upon which to build. The challenge ultimately turned out not to be the tangible assets, but rather building a culture of people interested in doing the work.

Curiosity can be, and unfortunately is, throttled in some countries. I am reminded of a lengthy meeting I had with several very high-ranking fire officers in Leningrad, Russia, back when there was a Soviet Union and the Cold War was plenty hot. They were very interested in our fire service and seemed quite forthcoming about theirs, or so I thought. It was only after the meeting, conducted through two Russian interpreters, that I learned that at least some of those officers indeed spoke English. When I asked my own Russian-speaking guide why, then, did they not speak with me directly in English, the answer was most interesting. It seems that the two Russian “interpreters” were in fact KGB agents and were there to sanitize what the officers said. Memories of World War II were still fresh and the fact that fire had been used by the German Army as a weapon was well remembered. For that reason, the capabilities of the Russian fire service were a closely guarded state secret and these officers were not about to provide information about it unless it was first scrubbed by the state.

So, what can we learn from each other? It’s not pride or curiosity. They’re already baked into the volunteer fire service DNA everywhere. I think what we can learn is how to capitalize on these traits to do our jobs better and safer. Worldwide, the problems are largely the same, but sometimes the solutions are different.

I believe that at least a partial resolution to our quest lies in networking, both formal and informal. For example, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) is currently a member of the Organización de Bomberos Americanos (Organization of American Firefighters, or OBA) which provides such an opportunity. OBA is made up of over 1 million firefighters, mostly volunteers, representing firefighting institutions from 17 primarily Latin American countries. Since its creation in 2006, it has trained almost 20,000 firefighters in 37 countries, creating a wonderful avenue for the exchange not only of technical knowledge, but also of cultural information.

Another organization with international connections is the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE), which has 41 branches in 23 countries. IFE conducts training and testing throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has a well-established network for exchanging information. Its work in researching and reporting large-scale fire incidents and drawing conclusions on how to improve both building and firefighter safety are most valuable.

And, of course, the NVFC’s relationship with the Japan Firefighters Association is longstanding, productive, and endlessly interesting. We have had the honor of frequently hosting its representatives here in the U.S. and likewise of being its guest on its home ground. The roots of this delightful exchange trace all the way back to the Federation of World Volunteer Firefighters of the early 1980s. Not only have we been exposed to new technologies and tactics, but also have been afforded a glimpse into a fascinating culture.

And then there are our wonderful friends in the Associazione Edelweiss, which boasts one of the few trained urban search and rescue (USAR) units in all of Italy. Its members have been wonderful hosts to the NVFC, becoming NVFC’s first International Member back when that membership category existed.

This is just a sampling of the plethora of organizations that are out there, but are ones that I am personally familiar with. The point is that there are only winners when we broaden our horizons beyond our borders. Huh. Isn’t that curious.

Chief Philip C. Stittleburg, B.A., J.D., FIFireE, CFOD, entered the volunteer fire service in 1972 after working as a paid member of a combination fire department. He has been chief of the La Farge (WI) Fire Department since 1977. Stittleburg is the past chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council, past chair of the National Fire Protection Association, and past president of the United States branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers. He also served on the board of directors of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for 18 years. Additionally, he represents the United States on the board of directors of the Organization de Bomberos Americanos.