Only 4 or 5 months ago (it seems), I was a firefighter on the busiest ladder company in the Jersey City, New Jersey Fire Department – a tough tenement-filled waterfront city directly across the river from New York City. What an experience that was! This week, I was reflecting on (that very real) 46 year fire service career after having served as Chief in Jersey City, then Superintendent of the US National Fire Academy, and now Deputy United States Fire Administrator. Like you, I have a hundred stories ranging from the difficult, to the ridiculous, to the hysterical and sometimes to the tragic; but those stories always end the same – with a deep and abiding respect and love for the men and women of the fire and emergency services and respect for the work we do.
It has been a remarkable career. I’ve been to every State in the US, and many foreign countries – from Moscow to Sydney, Auckland to London, Seoul to Dublin and from Hong Kong to Glasgow. And where I haven’t been, I’ve met students from every continent in the world (yes, Antarctica too!) at the US National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg Maryland. We’re all pretty much the same, folks. In America, there is a term “…cut from the same cloth..”, which means that whatever you look like and wherever you’re from, deep down firefighters and officers are all pretty much the same. The firefighters in a center-city Beijing fire station are pretty much the same characters you will meet in a downtown Brooklyn firehouse. Different food, maybe (still plenty of it), but pretty much the same kind of people.
Over these years and miles, I’ve come to understand some universal truths that I’d like to share – let’s call them “The Top Ten List of Fire Service Observations” – and I don’t care where you’re from – they apply. We have common experiences, and we’re all facing a common future.
- Our mission is no longer just firefighting; we are the all-hazards responders to all community risks. As such, we are continually challenged by new and recurring natural and man-made disasters and acts of terrorism. Progressive leaders and departments prepare for these.
- We are in the process of moving from an occupation to a profession – from war stories to scientific, evidence-based practice. We’re caught in the middle of that right now, and sometimes it’s hard to figure things out. Given a choice, go with the science; it’s replicable. War stories are never the same, they’re one-time events based on one or several opinions.
- As professionals, we must model other professions in terms of education, training, experience and continuing education. This starts the day you enter the profession and ends the day you leave. You must have an equal balance of all four; one or two alone are not enough.
- Fire Service leaders are becoming more politically astute; they understand that success is reliant on their ability to influence governments and communities, not on their technical knowledge or ability to warn of dangers and chaos.
- Accurate data are critical to successful decision-making. The availability of data, along with systems to manage the data continue to improve. The fire service’s vulnerability is the accuracy and reliability of fire incident data entry. Fire departments sometimes learn that lesson way too late and frequently suffer the consequences.
- The world’s population is aging. We know 3 things about the elderly – they are the high risk group for accidents, the high risk group for fires, and the high-demand group for emergency medical services. Demands for our services are going to increase as our populations age.
- The world is a smaller place; that’s not news. International communication is simple, that’s not news either. But knowledge transfer between and among the fire services isn’t where we need it to be. If we are to be successful in meeting new challenges, our profession will have to communicate across borders, cultures and languages to take advantage of new knowledge developed by others. Organizations like the International Association of Fire Chiefs, periodicals like International Firefighter and large educational conferences held on several continents help make this happen.
- As public servants and professionals, we are and will be held liable for our actions. We can no longer rely on our image as saviors, or good intent, to protect us from liability. Everyone has a camera. Every emergency is being recorded by someone. Like our brothers and sisters in law enforcement, you will be held accountable for your actions or failure to act.
- We often become enamored with the technologies of our profession, but organizations are successful because of people. That requires different techniques in different cultures and organizations, but people are people. No amount of technology will make a poor leader successful. There is no overarching technology that will overcome human weaknesses or failures.
- The materials and methods of building construction will continue to challenge us. The high-rise fires in London and Dubai are merely symptomatic; none of us are immune. If it hasn’t happened to you, you’ve been lucky. Continuous and rigorous research, testing, legislation, code enforcement and diligence are the keys to managing your risk.
Image for illustration purposes only and by US Air Force from USA (Firefighter training) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons