Bill Ennis, Sr., the father of our newest blogger, Chief Rick Ennis, passed away on July 20 at the age of 85, following a 40-year career in the fire service. Rick dedicates this post to his dad.
If you read my last post, you’ll recall I offered the premise that the American fire service has traditionally been divided into two camps: prevention people and suppression people. I held that fire sprinklers have typically been a prevention issue when they really should be considered more of a suppression issue.
So, who am I and how did I develop my views? I grew up in the fire service, and it has been woven into my natural fiber. In their day, my grandfather, father, and three older siblings were all dedicated firefighters and fire service instructors who eventually became passionate fire chiefs. In my most formative years, my dad served as our town’s fire chief/fire marshal/building official, and in his free time, served as a regional instructor on many topics. In his heart, though, he was simply a fireman.
Growing up, I was blessed to have often been able to tag along with my father. He didn’t have the time for the typical father-son stuff. Instead, he took me along with him when he could to the fire house, to training sessions, to building construction sites, to actual fires. I won’t admit to readers (or my mother) how young I was when I began helping my older brothers “stoke” during live fire training burns in acquired structures.
My fire service career started more than 34 years ago in the 1980s. I have served in a variety of capacities in a variety of suburban communities and small cities. No matter your fire service background, I can relate through my own experience.
I came up through the ranks primarily in suppression and training. I worked a full-time, 56-hour shift schedule and on my days off as a part-time firefighter and fire instructor. My favorite training subjects were hands-on suppression-related tactics and tasks. My closest brothers (literally and figuratively) and I lived to fight fires. I was always aware of the benefits of fire sprinklers, especially in large or special-hazard buildings. I never, ever opposed fire sprinklers. But honestly, I’d hope the fire was still burning when I arrived, so I could get in on a piece of the action.
Once I became a fire chief, my perspective began to change. It’s one thing to be inside of or on top of a burning building, partly in control of your own destiny. When you are standing outside commanding and controlling the entire fire ground, you actually feel more helpless. No matter how much faith and confidence you have in your people, even when they remind you of yourself when you were them, you cannot physically touch them. You know you are responsible for each and every one of them, and that creates uneasiness. Those fires just never seems to go out as quickly as you’d like.
In between fires, I began spending more time planning how to best deliver suppression services to the customer. Planning on how best to reduce response times to suppression events. Planning on how to best acquire and deploy suppression resources. Planning on how best to create the safest environment for my suppression people as possible. Planning on how to best deliver suppression services along with the variety of other services we were responsible for delivering.
I also began overseeing and supporting prevention people. I became reacquainted with code enforcement issues, recalling my father’s approach to his role as fire marshal/building official. I regained a greater appreciation for their perspective on fire protection. I realized I needed to expand my knowledge and understanding of prevention issues. During that process, I was reintroduced to fire sprinklers, especially home fire sprinklers, by people like Shane Ray, now president of the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA); Vickie Pritchett, NFSA's director of public fire protection; and Amy Acton, executive director of the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. However, I did not simply take on the typical “prevention perspective” of the issue.
In my heart, I’ll always be a fireman. A suppression guy. And, it is from this perspective that I view fire sprinklers. Especially home fire sprinklers. Putting out house fires is still at my core, and I will forever welcome the opportunity to do so. However, I have come to the realization that there is a better way of doing it than just me riding around on a fire engine from house fire to house fire.
Rick Ennis is fire chief for the City of Cape Girardeau in Missouri and chair of the Missouri Fire Sprinkler Coalition.