Firefighters adapt to new roles in age of fewer fires

SOMERVILLE, Mass. (AP) - A dispatcher's voice fills the halls of the Somerville Fire Department. Temple Street. Third floor. Fire.

Coats go on in a blur. Bodies fly down a pole polished over decades. Ten minutes later, the rush is over.

There was no fire: only an overheated electrical outlet producing sparks.

Such scenes are played out again and again in this city of 75,000 and around the country. Today, fires are at historical lows and firefighters are more likely to respond to medical emergencies, false alarms and hazardous materials calls than actual blazes.

Indeed, the brass pole is becoming an anachronism as the total number of fires in the United States has dropped by nearly half in the last 20 years, from 3.3 million in 1977 to 1.8 million last year.

In the same period, civilian fire deaths also dropped by almost half, from 7,395 to 4,035, according to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association. Nationwide, fires account for only about one-sixth of all calls fire departments receive.

The difference is obvious to Somerville firefighter Jimmy Donovan, 57, who's been fighting fires for 30 years in this historic city just north of Boston.

''It's day and night,'' Donovan says. ''If we went a week or two without a fire, we were overdue. Now, you can go six months.''

Success in reducing fires and their casualties has been linked to three main factors: smoke detectors, engineering and public education.

Smoke detectors became comparatively inexpensive by the late 1970s, and their increasing use has been perhaps the biggest factor in saving lives.

The chances of dying in a fire drop by 50 percent in a home with a smoke detector; by 1995, the NFPA estimates, they were in use in more than 93 percent of households.

''The tremendous increase in the use of home smoke alarms is the single biggest fire safety success story of the last 30 years,'' said John Hall Jr., assistant vice president of fire analysis and research for the Quincy-based NFPA.

Engineering improvements also have helped. Building and fire codes ensure that fires are less likely to spread. Federal regulations have led to more fire-resistant products, from upholstered furniture to children's pajamas. Many new space heaters are designed to turn themselves off if they're knocked over or left on for extended periods of time. Cigarette lighters are child-resistant.

In the movement to fight fire with regulations, the city of Scottsdale, Ariz., is a leader, with fire codes that rank among the strictest in the nation.

Laws passed in the 1980s require that nearly every room in the city must have a sprinkler, including church confessional boxes and pantries that contain electronic appliances.

Scottsdale's fire fatalities are half the national average, according to Fire Marshal Jim Ford. In this modern Sunbelt city of more than 200,000, firefighters respond to one or two structure fires a month.

Education also has been key in reducing fires, said Tom Brace, Minnesota's fire marshal and president of the National Association of State Fire Marshals.

He cited campaigns like ''stop, drop and roll'' and ''change your clock, change your (smoke detector) battery'' as catchy pitches that have, over time, changed the way children and adults think about fire and fire safety.

The drop in fires is good news for the public. It's also enough to make some firefighters wistful for the ''good old days'' when they came home most nights covered in soot and glad to be alive.

''Back then, it was all fires. Now, it's everything but,'' says Somerville Deputy Fire Chief David Salvi. '''Fire department' is a misnomer.''

In Scottsdale, 60 to 70 percent of all calls are medical; 30 percent are hazardous material or ''special duty'' calls (from testing smoke alarms to catching rattlesnakes). About 7 percent are fires.

In Boston, where a 1942 fire at the Coconut Grove nightclub killed 492 people and led to better exits in public buildings, emergency lighting and widespread use of automatic sprinklers, fires now account for only 8 percent of all calls. About 40 percent are medical or other requests.

''When we came on the job, we used to leave the fire house with rubber boots,'' remarks Jimmy Donovan, the Somerville firefighter. ''Now it's rubber gloves.''

As firefighters adapt to their changing roles, Brace predicts, they will continue to be the first to respond to emergencies, whether they be fires, medical calls, industrial accidents or natural disasters.

''To say we're going to eliminate the need for the fire service, I don't think so - not in a number of lifetimes,'' he said, adding that fire stations may one day be places where people can vote, get their blood pressure checked and get their smoke detector batteries checked.

End advance for Monday, Dec. 6


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