Chief Ronny Coleman's name is well-known to most members of the fire service and certainly to readers of this magazine, where his “Chief's Clipboard” column has run monthly for more than 20 years. A 40-year veteran of the fire service, who better to provide this 50th anniversary issue of Fire Chief with a perspective on the future?
In recent years, the fire service has been assuming responsibility for ever-broadening range of services. What do you see as the trend for the future and where does it end? Or does it?
I feel the reason the fire service has become “the emergency service provider of choice” is that we're the most widely distributed, readily available, almost universally competent group of people in community government. With the increased role the fire service took on with EMS, and especially now that we have the 911 system, when people have a problem and don't know who else to call, they call us.
That trend has to do with the fact we've been responsive. I've been on rattlesnake calls, calls because squirrels were behind bookcases, and rip-roaring structure fire calls, all in the same community. The fire service has a can-do attitude. We'll try to do something about a problem, regardless of what it is. I think the trend is going to continue, maybe even broaden. I think we'll see extensions of service related to the hazardous materials field, into such things as environmental emergencies and other kinds of events that may not have been traditional fire service roles in the past.
What area of the fire service do you feel has the greatest need for change in the future? What area has the greatest potential for change?
That's a tricky question. You've heard the old saying, “300 years of tradition unhampered by progress” — it is patently untrue. The fire service has been undergoing constant change, and has probably undergone more change in the past 100 years than any other element of government. Sure, we still have firehouses and fire trucks and we still put firefighters on pieces of apparatus, but if you took a firefighter from 1956 and put him in a fire station today, his mind would be boggled by all the changes he would have to deal with. Computers, infrared heat detection technology, advanced medical services capacity … the list goes on and on.
I think that in may ways we are symbolically traditional. It has a lot to do with how the fire service feels about itself and how we want to be seen by the community. But the fact is the tools and technology of the fire service are changing right along with the rest of society.
Certainly there have been the changes in the tools of the trade. But what about the way fire service leaders look at their jobs?
That's almost the cultural side. Sept. 11, 2001, had a tremendous impact. It brought the fire service to the forefront, but five years later we have people who were not even in the fire service then who now are standing in the shadow of that image. There are some cultural aspects of the fire service that I think are going to be challenged in the coming years, one of which is the true perspective that society has toward it. I think the tendency of everybody thinking they're American heroes just because they put on a firefighter's hat is going to be subject to some modification. I also think that the continuously increasing costs of fire department operation is going to force departments to looking at different staffing patterns and different working relationships and so forth. Changes in these areas are really going to challenge the culture of the fire service.
Looking into your crystal ball, what can you tell us about the typical chief of 2056?
Let me answer that this way: If we took a chief from 50 years ago and brought him into today, aside from the changes in technology, would he be capable of keeping up? I don't think the people who emerge at the top levels of fire departments are going to change that much in terms who they are. They are people who want to influence the future, they are people who think about things a little more comprehensively, they are people who are constantly aspiring to a higher level of education. I'm a real admirer of people like John Damrell, the fire chief of Boston in the late 1800s who stood up for things like building codes, and New York Chief Edward Croker, who fought for sprinkler systems at the turn of the century. Leadership, I think, emerges out of any population where there is a group of people who want to influence the future in a positive way.
What one piece of advice would you offer the firefighter today who is considering seeking a position of command?
I talk to as many entry-level firefighters as I do candidates for the position of chief. I tell them all the same thing: Don't aspire to promotion, aspire to competency. If you acquire a competency at every level you pursue, you'll be prepared for the next step.