Physical Science vs Social Science - Why Are We Here?

Jim Aleski

September 26, 2022

Recently, my engine company responded to a fire alarm. As usual, there were only three of us on the rig – one of us a one-year guy not much older than the 25-year-old engine fire we were riding. We weren't getting any information over our mobile data computer due to an issue at the dispatch center, and our truck radio wasn't working either!

It was a false alarm – but when we returned to the firehouse, I felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy pulled the football away. I actually said out loud - how have we gotten to this point?

I've worked for a long-time, helping firefighters with engagement and communications issues. Unfortunately, most don't spend much time thinking about these things. Even fewer put much value into them.

And I get it. It's not exciting stuff. Most firefighters would rather be in a class outside in our gear, moving hose lines, throwing ladders, and breaking things, than inside listening to somebody talk about communications.

And those things are critical. We are in the business of mastering physical science phenomena and tasks. We need to know about fire behavior, hydraulics, emergency medicine, engineering, and a million other things that can seriously injure or kill us. This work can be dirty and ugly at times.

But those things are what we do.

They're not why we're here.

We're here to help people. The fire service exists to keep our communities safe and whole. And, I realize these are abstract concepts - not black and white physical science but shades of grey social science. 

How do we even measure these things?

One way is through politics. Quite simply, politics is a game of who gets what. And firefighters want the proper resources we need to keep our communities safe.

Getting these things requires communication. They need an understanding of social science. It means being political. And just like our physical science tasks, these things can be dirty, ugly work.

As the late Chicago Fire Department Deputy Chief John Eversole, once said, "Our department takes 1,120 calls every day. Do you know how many of the calls the public expects perfection on? 1,120. Nobody calls the fire department and says, 'send me two dumb-ass firemen in a pickup truck.' In three minutes, they want five brain-surgeon decathlon champions to come and solve all their problems."

I am not advocating for us to stop preparing for our physical science tasks. They're the backbone of what we do. We need to be brain-surgeon decathletes. If not, people get killed.

But if we keep accepting sending only two of our dumb-asses on pickup trucks to solve everyone's problems, we will eventually lose. The swiss cheese holes will line up. Some of us will be the ones getting killed.

We need to start studying, mastering, and valuing the realms of communication, social science, and politics as much as we do emergency response. Otherwise, the fire service itself is at risk of being killed. 

And if that happens, everyone gets the football pulled out from under them.

Jim Aleski is a 25-year fire service veteran and career engine company in the Philadelphia metro area. Jim serves as a Branding and Content Specialist at NEP Services and formerly served as the Communications/Social Media Director for the Professional Firefighters Association of New Jersey (PFANJ), the state affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). Prior to becoming a career firefighter, Jim responded as a volunteer while working for more than a decade as a media producer. Jim was involved in the production of hundreds of national TV commercials, network branding campaigns, music videos, and corporate communication projects. Jim holds a BS in Mass Communications from Emerson College and earned a MS in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University.