Never Forget? We always do – Book Review for “I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying”: The American Fire Culture by Burton Clark

Never Forget? We always do – Book Review for  I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture by Burton Clark


Firefighters have to die, right? Isn’t it part of the job?

Dr. Burton Clark, EdD, EFO has been arguing in his new book (and for decades) that this is not true.  In his book, I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture, he challenges us all – firefighters, officers, chiefs, public officials, public safety people, etc. – to change our perceptions about fire deaths, specifically to not call a civilian death an act of God and not to think of a firefighter death as part of the job.

If you believe that the answer to the questions above is “Yes” then the follow-up is, how many deaths are acceptable?  Can you answer that question with a number more than zero and feel good about it?  Would you give a number greater than zero to the public? What about to the loved ones of firefighters? What about preventable deaths?  How many preventable deaths are acceptable?  

Based on our behavior as a collective fire culture and based on the data, we are saying that preventable deaths are acceptable.  Fire service line of duty deaths (LODDs) have not decreased over the past 30 years.  Arguably, worse than the number of LODDs is the way we are killing firefighters.  As Clark points out, we are not killing firefighters in new ways (p. 46).  We are dying the same ways we used to, with a majority being preventable deaths.

Look at the chart below, showing firefighter deaths by cause and injury.  Ask yourself, which of these are preventable?  This chart is from the NFPA website (

Firefighter deaths by cause and nature of injury

Cause of Injury Fatalities Percentage
Overexertion/stress/medical 29 42%
Crashes 17 25%
Fell 7 10%
Struck by object 4 6%
Fatal assault 3 6%
Structural collapse 3 4%
Lost inside 1 1%
Caught underwater/diving 1 1%
Exposure to fumes 1 1%
Alcohol overdose 1 1%
Total 69 100%
Nature of Injury Fatalities Percentage
Sudden cardiac death 26 38%
Internal trauma 26 38%
Asphyxiation or smoke inhalation 6 9%
Gunshot 4 6%
Crushing injuries 2 3%
Stroke 1 1%
Embolism 1 1%
Burns 1 1%
Drowning 1 1%
Alcohol overdose 1 1%
Total 69 100%

Source: Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, Rita F. Fahy, Paul R. LeBlanc, Joseph L. Molis, NFPA, June 2017 and previous reports in the series.

Updated 6/17

The culture of the fire service has a dogma that LODDs are part of the job.  This is dangerous,  erroneous, irresponsible, and is dishonorable.  In public safety in general, and in the police/fire services, we honor our fallen with stirring memorial services and make bold and inspiring claims to Never Forget.  But, we do.  We forget to take care of our fitness, to wear our seatbelts, to wear SCBA, to train when and how to call maydays.

So, what do we need to do?  We need to be courageous, we are THE BRAVEST, after all.  Let’s act like it.  We need to work on the culture, specifically around safety. As with many complex challenges in the work, we need leadership – formal and informal.

We need Chiefs, Officers, Driver/Engineers and other supervisors to step up and lead through training, accountability, advocacy, and learning.  We also (almost more importantly) need individual firefighters to lead themselves and each other.  One of the things that impacted me the most reading Clark’s book, is the call for bravery and leadership at all levels.

In any industry and as competent people, we must continue to learn.  We must learn from others, for ourselves, and for the fallen.  Remember, we Never Forget.  Learning can and should be casual and formal.  All types are important if learning is to actually happen and change people for the better.  This book, I Can’t Save You But I’ll Die Trying: The American Fire Culture, Clark is trying to get us to learn.  Anyone who has met Dr. Clark knows he will not give up on this, and neither should the rest of us.

Read this book, and ask yourself, what can I change today to make sure everyone does go home?


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