Kevin O’Connor underscores that fire safety must remain a top priority as organizations try to align themselves with firefighters.

The imagery of firefighters is a valuable commodity for anyone trying to sell a product, advance an issue or even influence politicians. We are coveted coalition partners with interests ranging from climate change to wireless carriers. There are times when the fire service chooses to partner with other organizations or an industry on an issue, lending our image to a worthy cause or even supporting a commercial product.

Firefighters were on the frontline of passing the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, helping all the victims of 9/11—that is, not just our 343 brothers killed that day and the thousands more who contracted occupational diseases, but also the residents, workers and visitors who were at or near Ground Zero. Advocates and politicos alike will concede that without firefighters leading the way, Zadroga would never have passed.

Over the years, we have used our clout to assist in the passage of legislation on fire-safe cigarettes and recently introduced smoking technology that does not produce an exposed “hot end,” as well as legislation related to stronger building codes, mandatory sprinkler installation and smoke detector laws and a host of other laudable initiatives. In all of those cases, public safety was enhanced, but clearly certain industries and manufacturers benefited. Our interests were aligned and the partnerships were mutually beneficial.

Advertisements featuring firefighters promote everything from new cars and vitamins, to beer and fast food. In most cases, these advertisements are crafted without our approval or our knowledge. Occasionally, an entity produces a great ad that highlights our profession and honors our service, even when they are selling their own wares. Verizon’s Super Bowl ad is a fine example. 

The point is that our profession, our reputation and our standing in the community has value, and others outside the fire service family want to utilize or monetize our imagery. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the legislative arena, both on the national and state levels. Many times, the interests of the fire service align with a specific industry, and we should be active and vibrant partners.

However, all too frequently, certain industries try to utilize our reputation by dragging the fire service into coalitions that are designed to improve their bottom line, sometimes when the connections to fire or public safety are non-existent or very thinly stretched.

In every state capitol, we are asked to join coalitions on many issues. We need to fully vet these requests to determine whether they are righteous issues or whether they are purely mercantile. Are we simply being used in a turf war between opposing interests or as a prop to curry favor with legislators?

The flame-retardant industry has long tried to associate itself with fire safety and the fire service community. Many of the products that they use are known carcinogens that impact firefighters and the general public. Nevertheless, the industry-backed Citizens for Fire Safety continues to promote and expand the use of toxic retardants. Regrettably, throughout this decades-long campaign, many fire service organizations and leaders were unwittingly part of the industry’s lobbying and public relations efforts.

Further, in many states, a war is raging between the wood and concrete industry, and the fire service is being drawn into the fray. This battle is about market share, not public safety. The masonry industry wants to build with their products, and the timber folks want to use wood. The respective sides are advocating for their industry and fighting to get the upper hand. But that is their battle, not ours. 

Our issue needs to be about life safety, and we need to be fully educated on the issues before we opine. We need to demand that codes are structured in a fashion in which the construction and occupancy of all buildings are fire safe, regardless of the construction material. Both the NFPA and ICC have exhaustive processes to evaluate and opine on these issues, as do state and local code agencies. We need to let those processes work and not be drawn into a battle in which one side wants to benefit from our branding. 

As we work to advance the interests of the fire service, we must have situational awareness when approached to participate in outside coalitions or sign onto a letter promoting an issue or product. We must guard against being used as a pawn to further outside interests. Maintaining our reputation and credibility is paramount to our mission of representing and protecting America Bravest.