The Hero Complex

After watching the quite excellent ‘Lie to Me’ recently one of the characters mentioned a ‘Hero complex’ among American fire-fighters which meant they were almost eight times more likely to die on the job than other first world firemen.

Interested I consulted the intertubes which revealed this, a paper from Dr Svensson, a Swedish fire fighting expert with a PhD in fire fighting tactics who still works at his local fire station as a firefighter. All in all quite well qualified you’d have to admit. Poking around in there revealed a comparison between the US, Sweden, the UK and New Zealand which stated that regardless of measure (per head of population, per fire or per firefighter) the US had the lowest survival rate of the four nations.

Taking the deaths per 100,000 fires;
US – 5.856
New Zealand – 2.160
Sweden – 1.318
UK – 0.565

So based on these figures a US fireman is somewhere between 2 to 10 times more likely to die in a fire depending on which country you compare with. There are doubtless many factors at work, some of which are not cultural (for instance building construction) but factors such as training and tactics are very much under the control of the various fire services.

Here is an example from Dr Svensson which helps to explain those differences;

There are numerous stories in the United States about the bravery of fire fighters,
stories such as

“…without aid of bunker gear, self-contained breathing apparatus or a
charged line, he continued into the blinding smoke until he felt a life-less
body under his hands…dragged the victim to safety …within seconds of
their exit, the room flashed over behind them.”

Eventually, for such a brave and heroic deed, the fire fighter is presented an award and is saluted with all the respect that comes with it. Of course this encourages others to do the same and to act with the same kind of “bravery”.

In Sweden, the UK or New Zealand, a “heroic deed” such as in the above fictive example would probably had led to inquiries, changes in training manuals, the dismissal of the fire fighter and probably even prosecution of the fire fighter for causing immediate danger to others. Even the officer in charge of the operation and the fire chief of that organization might get a conviction. A purpose of this is of course to discourage others from acting foolishly and unprofessionally.

The US counter-argument is an interesting one, see this response from a fairly senior US fire marshal. The essential argument is that it’s the public builds up firemen as heroes  and that fire fighting is not ‘just a job’ but an inherently heroic job, therefore the aim should be to just redirect the hero complex not wipe it out.  At this point I should note this isn’t a post 2001 issue, this goes back to at least the 1970s in the data, almost certainly further. That said I wouldn’t be surprised if the problem has got worse since then.

Is there a point to this? Doubtless dozens of sociologists could get excited over it, however the most interesting part to me were the different definitions of bravery;  the US celebrates those who charge into the unknown without pause where as the UK emphasise not making things worse by charging in and then having to be rescued yourself.

Which is better? Well it depends on whether you’re trapped in a burning house waiting for rescue or if you’re a fireman who has to risk his own life to help a colleague who charged in and got himself stuck.


4 Responses to “The Hero Complex”

  1. Saurya Velagapudi Says:

    What are the rescue rates for the different countries? If American fire fighters are bigger heroes, do they accomplish more heroic things?

  2. Not sure where he gets his numbers, but according to FEMA’s charts, the highest number of deaths per 100 000 fires in the US between 1996 and 2001 was 4.5 in 1999. That is an outlier- usually the number hovers around 3. In 2011 it is 2.51.
    Still shows USA is on the upper range but it’s almost 1/2 of the cited number.

    For more detailed info

  3. I think American movies and culture do lead to more Americans disregarding their personal safety (and possibly their colleagues too). If the movies are to be believed, American troops endeavour to “never leave a man behind”, even if that person is dead. UK special forces however will definitely leave the dead behind, and often even the seriously wounded. Their principle seems to be better 1 dead than 10, and the mission is more likely to succeed if weaknesses are removed. Hopefully this is all worded with no disrespect to anyone, I’m just commenting on cultural differences, not what is right or wrong.

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