The Fire Service’s Roots in Prevention

Issue 5 and Volume 9.

In the late 1800s, a young man entered the fire service as a private serving on an engine company in our nation’s most populated city. Over the course of his career he would see the department in which he served grow exponentially in size and technological sophistication. What was once an operational workforce powered by horses became fully mechanized and technologically advanced. Yet despite these advancements, fire losses at the time continued to increase. The war on fire was being lost—and so too were many lives.

For 27 years he would serve his department in various ranks and eventually rise to become chief. Throughout his tenure, he would establish the credibility and respect of an accomplished leader. Years later, unbeknownst to him, his name would become one of the most recognizable within our profession and his words would be referenced by firefighters around the world. The man’s name: Edward Franklin Croker, former chief of department for the FDNY (1899–1911).

Likely the most referenced words ever spoken by Chief Croker are these: “I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a firefighter. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the firefighter has to do believe that his is a noble calling.”

These few yet simple words speak volumes about what it meant to Chief Croker to be a firefighter, and these same words epitomize the pride and dedication we strive to instill in everyone who embarks upon the journey of becoming a firefighter.

As a man who dedicated his every ounce of energy to increase his knowledge of the fire service, Chief Croker would describe his infectious passion by saying, “It may seem strange to say that a man will grow to love a business that constantly places him in danger of being killed or crippled for life, which entails disagreeable work, and which keeps him on duty day and night, but the true fireman literally comes to love his profession. He likes to fight fires, and he will fight to keep on fighting.”

Yet there’s a side of this illustrious chief’s career that few know and even fewer have chosen to reference. Over the course of his career, Chief Croker epitomized the suppression/prevention dichotomy of the American fire service. That is, despite his passion for the task of fighting fires, Chief Croker believed that prevention was a more formidable means of saving lives and protecting property.

How do we know this? Because he backed up his beliefs with action. On May 1, 1911, five weeks after witnessing the devastating effects of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, Chief Croker submitted his resignation from the FDNY, choosing to devote the rest of his life to the work of prevention. While cautious never to compromise the importance of an effective operational force, Chief Croker penned an article titled, “Our Losing Firefight Against Fire—Cases of bravery and danger to no purpose—heroic firemen and improved fighting machinery, but no gain on the loss of life and property.”

In the preface of Chief Croker’s book Prevention, Reginald McIntosh Cleveland wrote these words describing the career of Chief Croker: “Through the years, the importance of striking at the root of the matter had grown upon him. To put out successive fires became futile; to prevent them served a truer end.”

It’s never been a secret among those who serve in this proud vocation—it’s the excitement, the adrenalin rush and the camaraderie that draws us to serve. WE, collectively ALL of us as firefighters, love going to fires—and this is something we should never dismiss or frown upon; it’s a critical component of our success. But deep down, does this unquenchable thirst for fire truly represent the selfless service of a man or woman dedicated to saving lives and property?

There are few in the history of the American fire service who have represented more fully what it means to be a firefighter than Chief Edward Croker. But if a man so impassioned by the task of firefighting would step back and look at his years served and say, “There’s a better way,” isn’t it time we do the same?

Chief Croker may indeed have achieved his greatest ambition the day he became a firefighter, and his words about the task of firefighting will always be remembered. But it’s my hope that over time, we remember him most for a very different quote: “There is no case where the old adage, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is as true as with fire. We have been stingy with our ounces, and it is costing us dear in pounds.”