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Modern Firefighters: Tackling More Than Just Flames

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Fires are on the decline nationwide, but that doesn't make a firefighters job any easier. In fact, it may be harder now. Not only are fires more complicated these days, but the scope of firefighting has changed drastically and now includes fire prevention, public education, safety inspections and more than anything, emergency medical assistance.

"Seventy percent of our calls are medical calls," probational firefighter Jeff Taylor tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan.

Taylor works at Station 4 in Alexandria, Va. The last time he saw a structural fire — one that affects a building or structure — was four months ago. That's thanks to better building materials and codes, as well as public awareness. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are half as many fires as there were 30 years ago.

But Taylor and the two dozen other firefighters at Station 4 are still saving lives. They're just doing it on a gurney. Every one of them is an emergency medical technician.

In the early '70s, the Alexandria Fire Department incorporated the rescue squad as part of the fire department medical services. It was the first paramedic program in the country.

Capt. Tony Washington, an 18-year firefighter, has seen the profession change and evolve. He acknowledges he may have missed fighting fires five or 10 years ago, but things have changed.

"Being a parent myself, owning my own house, having my own kids, I don't enjoy the fires at all," he says. "My guys get the excitement in their eyes. ... I usually don't because I know that we're going for [is] somebody's worst day.

"And I don't want to be on the other side of that."

In addition to medical training, firefighters also have to understand modern building codes and construction. Because though there are fewer fires, today's homes are far more dangerous.

"Now instead of using this big piece of wood to hold up a building, they're using an engineered piece of wood," Washington says. "If I took a piece of paper and lit it up on fire, it's going to go up like that. That lighter-weight construction is going to go down a lot faster than that heavy timber."

Ultimately, today's incoming class of firefighters can expect to receive a very different education than they would have even a decade ago. The future for them means training for emergency medical calls, hazardous material spills, a terrorist attack, and doing what they call community outreach: charity drives and awareness campaigns.

"It's our job, the leaders of the department," Washington says, "to make them understand that this is the wave of the future."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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