To meet the challenges we face, and to take advantage of the great opportunities before us, the American fire service will require a collective focus.
The first big challenge concerns service levels, which should be determined based on community risk assessments and capabilities to the degree that a community or fire department has the resources needed to prevent, prepare for, respond to or mitigate risk within their community.
Based on the economic drivers we are facing, the fire service at local levels will have to evaluate whether a community or fire department has the resources and capabilities to respond to such risks. If they do not, there are several strategies to remedy this, such as more formal automatic-aid or increased mutual-aid agreements, regional agreements related to special operations services, and the consolidation of smaller departments into larger departments. We've been talking about this last tactic for a long time, but we've come to a place now where we're going to have to be more serious in analyzing the need for that.
The demographic shift that we are experiencing across the nation will present another challenge. Minority populations are increasing. The greatest increase has been in the Hispanic populations. Indeed, some statistics indicate that by 2050, Hispanics will be the largest minority in the nation. In some communities and cities, they'll be the majority. I believe this will have a two-fold impact on the future.
First, language and cultural barriers will affect our ability to deliver quality services to certain minority groups. We're not as prepared as we need to be to serve certain ethnic groups, especially those with languages and cultural nuances to which we are unaccustomed.
Second, the demographic shift will impact how fire departments look across the nation. We've already begun to see that white males are becoming the minority in some fire departments. Meanwhile, there are several departments in which the majority are African Americans and Hispanics. This will increase over the coming years.
As a result of this shift, we're going to see more reverse-discrimination allegations coming from white males. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Those who previously were in the minority should be more sensitive to such challenges based on what they previously had to go through; thus, we should experience greater justice and equality within fire departments because — at a certain tipping point — more will have experienced what it's like to be in the minority. The fire service also is going to see an increase in women's issues, largely because we have a long way to go to really bring a full scope of justice and equity to such issues.
The rate of attrition that we are experiencing, accelerated by the number of baby boomers who are retiring, also will be challenging. I've asked one question all over the country since I became U.S. fire administrator: Are the professional-development opportunities at the local, state and federal levels adequate to counteract the loss of experience and knowledge that we are experiencing? For the most part, the answer I am getting is "no."
At the, we have a great obligation to expand access to training and to provide support for state and local training academies, in order to foster professional development. Without ongoing, effective professional development, fire chiefs will be faced with a grim choice: leaving positions vacant until they can properly train successors to promote, or promoting inexperienced, untrained successors. I think the latter is going to be common, because there's a risk when you leave vacancies for a period of time — politicians think those positions must not be necessary and they use that to meet certain budget challenges that communities are facing. Rather than risk losing positions, fire chiefs will be forced to promote untrained, inexperienced leaders.
That's a tremendous risk. If we do not meet this challenge, we could experience a significant loss of effective leadership within our organizations — from human-resources management to financial management to incident management — which will have a direct impact on our service levels.
I always try to put a positive spin on things, but the realities borne of the economic crisis the nation is facing has presented a tremendous challenge. For instance, the city of Atlanta has gone through a major period of service-level reductions due to budget cuts. The situation has stabilized now, and the city probably will not face further reductions because of the tax initiatives that it has undertaken.
However, there are many departments across the country that are just beginning to go through what Atlanta experienced — and the worst is yet to come. It will be three to five years before things start to turn around. Indeed, we can anticipate no funds for apparatus and equipment replacement, or station renovation or replacement, for another three to five years. It is imperative then that we face these challenges with enthusiasm and professionalism because we are the leaders and it is our duty to keep the men and women in the fire service motivated until things turn around.
Still another enormous challenge concerns the increased threat of terrorism, as evidenced by the attempted attack on a U.S.-bound airliner on Christmas day. We should anticipate that such attempts will increase in the coming months and years.
Line-of-duty deaths and injuries still are challenging for us. They are a cultural challenge, driven in large measure by a lack of accountability at every level that we must address. I think the USFA's upcoming vulnerability-assessment project will play a major role in raising the level of accountability, which in turn will result in a reduction of LODDs and injuries that is consistent from year to year.
Fire prevention and life-safety education are just simple matters of not resting on our diligent effort to increase the installation of smoke alarms in residences throughout the United States, but to increase the effort by launching a campaign to install carbon-monoxide alarms. I believe we have an obligation to push both campaigns simultaneously, because there is an alarming increase in deaths due to carbon-monoxide poisoning. If anybody is going to take ownership and make an impact on awareness, it should be the fire service.
In addition to smoke and carbon-monoxide alarms, as well as public-safety and public-education initiatives, we certainly should continue our efforts to spark legislation at the local, state and federal levels that would require residential sprinklers in homes.
Fire-based EMS is going to be a significant opportunity for us given the health-care environment in which the country finds itself. In the future, fire-based EMS effectively will reduce the workload on hospitals and clinics, and that will strengthen the relationship between the fire service and a plethora of medical-care institutions on the local level. It also will save the lives of many Americans.
— As told to Janet Wilmoth
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- Cultural Barriers
By Kelvin Cochran, U.S. Fire Administrator
- Booming Woes
By Denis Onieal, Superintendent, National Fire Academy
- Emerging Economy
By Rob Brown, Chief, Stafford County (Va.) Fire Department
- Volunteer Issues
By Philip Stittleburg, Chief, LaFarge (Wis.) Fire Department, and Chairman, NVFC
- Apparatus Advances
By Peter , President, FAMA, and Chief Operating Officer and Vice President, Darley Co.
- Expanded EMS
By Gary Ludwig, Deputy Chief, Memphis (Tenn.) Fire Department, and Chairman, EMS Section
- Federal Deficits
By Bill Webb, Executive Director, CFSI
- Safety First
By Rob McLeod, Deputy Chief, Chandler (Ariz.) Fire Department, and Chairman, FDSOA
- Creative City Managers
By Bill Wolpin, Associate Publisher/Editorial Director, American City & County magazine
- Renewed Hope
By Meri-K Appy, President, Home Safety Council
- Budget Efficiencies
By John R. Hill, President, Envizion Financial