As we entered the year 2000, I sat in our emergency operations center poised for technological disaster. Now, as I write this a decade later, I sit in our EOC managing the effects of the largest snowstorm to hit the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area since 1922. While the economy gave us the best of times and the worst of times over the past decade, one truth remained constant — the American fire service is every community's all-hazards solution.
As we move into the next decade, living up to people's expectations of the fire service will be ever challenging. Regardless of how strongly we wish to hold onto traditions we enjoyed in the past, the emerging new economy will not be forgiving. As we come out of this economic crisis and prepare to meet the challenges of the next decade, leadership is the glue needed to hold an organization, a community and our country together. Leading change in this emerging economy will not be easy. But as chief fire officers, we must challenge the status quo. We must insist that every aspect of our organization be evaluated for need and effectiveness, while not compromising the safety of our personnel in any way. Failure to find new ways to deliver emergency services will most assuredly ensure that time will pass you by.
A good friend of the fire service, Dr. Bill Atkinson, spoke years back at a national conference. He displayed a picture of a 1920s-era, dog-eared leather football helmet and then held up today's modern football helmet, one using space-age technology to protect the player. The next photo was of a World War I fighter-pilot helmet, then one worn by fighter pilots today with advanced protection and communications. Finally, he held up a picture of a traditional leather fire helmet from the 1920s and then one from today — there wasn't much change there. Sure, materials are better and safety features have been added to the inner workings, but overall, it is the same helmet — and much more costly.
Let's make the next decade the one in which we set aside some traditions and embrace new technologies, as well as new ways of carrying out our core mission and the various peripheral support missions that people have come to expect from us. Consider for a moment how many fire chiefs knew what being green meant in 2000 compared to how many know today. I venture to guess that most chiefs today are now familiar with the term "being green." But I would also predict that very few chiefs have any idea about how green technologies will change our industry in the next decade.
Already, many fire-station facilities are incorporating energy-saving building practices and technologies. Departments are looking to reduce their carbon footprints to be environmentally sensitive, but even more so to squeeze every penny of savings out of their new baseline budgets. That's right, I said "new baseline budgets." As the economy recovers, I foresee that our budgets will never return to the status quo. Most of us will find that the "reduced budget" is the new budget. Finding new technologies that range from reducing community risk to reducing the cost of providing service will become the rule — not the exception. Our fire apparatus and equipment manufacturer partners will have to retool their strategies and products as well. Here are some of the economy-driven changes I predict:
More emphasis will be placed on community risk reduction. This is the decade of the fire marshal. Now is the time we all must act on the lip service we have given to prevention, and promote risk reduction instead of departmental expansion.
LEED certification of new fire stations will become a community standard. The McMansion fire station will take a back seat to sustainable-designed facilities with alternative energy options, reduced waste and pollution, improved protection of occupant health and improved employee productivity.
Fire apparatus will incorporate alternative energy sources and design efficiencies. The trend will be toward smaller, more space-efficient apparatus with improved occupant safety. The term "custom" won't be synonymous with visual bling but instead will represent a design based on safety and operational efficiency.
Apparatus and equipment manufacturers will offer lower-cost options without compromising safety and effectiveness. New technologies will reduce the cost of the vital tools we use — such as radios, cardiac monitors/defibrillators and PPE — to ensure affordability in this new era of lean budgets.
Organizational efficiencies will emerge causing us to seek regional sharing of resources and programs. Discussions regarding fire and EMS department consolidations, and even city-and-city and city-and-county consolidations, will be on the rise.
Adopting performance benchmarks and seeking evaluation through independent organizations such as the Commission on Fire Accreditation International will become commonplace to provide independent evidence of resource needs. Information technology, such as enhanced computer-aided dispatch, automatic vehicle location and geographic information systems will become even more vital in improving response efficiencies, data collection and system management.
The next decade will challenge our previous way of thinking and doing business at every turn, and will most assuredly create dramatic changes in the way we must operate. However, what will remain constant in the next decade is that the fire service will continue to be America's all-hazard, domestic first responder. And, to deliver the level of emergency service that the American public has come to expect, we must have the right people. People who will embrace new ideas, new technologies and new practices will be essential — as will the guarantee that the necessary funds are available to avoid reducing the number of people we need to safely and efficiently respond to the needs of our communities.
Return to the 2010 Decade Forecast: Sighs of the Times main page.
Or jump to another 2010 Decade Forecast perspective:
- 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