By Brett Lacey and Paul Valentine
Most of us in the fire service always believed our jobs were recessionproof. Today we are learning there is no such thing. We are finding ways to do more with less and facing drastic budget cuts that are different from in our memorable past. Many departments’ budget reductions now impact personnel, not just operating and capital budgets. Fire prevention divisions, administrative support services, and operations divisions have had to reduce personnel to balance a tough budget. With a reduction in fire prevention staff, fire departments may now be looking harder than ever to the operations division to take a more active role in fire prevention activities. In many departments, this may be a new adventure. Where do you begin?
One of the most frequently overlooked keys to a good fire prevention program is the company officer. The same individual who has the opportunity to lead a team of trained professionals to mitigate any emergency also has the opportunity to harness this team’s skill to enhance fire prevention efforts. An effective fire prevention program serves not only the citizens but also fire suppression personnel. Fire prevention and mitigation efforts equate to firefighter safety. How do fire prevention efforts positively impact emergency operations?
Many fire service professionals now refer to fire prevention efforts as a means of “shaping our battlefield.” The actions we take prior to the incident affect the outcome for occupants of a structure and also affect the ability or inability of emergency responders to function at their best. Fire prevention and mitigation during the initial construction and ongoing maintenance of a building help to “shape the battlefield” by enhancing the possibilities of successful outcomes when incidents occur. When suppression personnel are called to a fire in a commercial structure at 0300 hours, do they know where the hydrant is or what types of hazards are inside? Is there a sufficient water supply? Where is the lock box? Where is the fire department connection? Where is the fire alarm control panel? The answers to these questions exemplify the firefighter’s battlefield. If you answered, “It depends,” then more effort may be necessary with regard to prevention and mitigation, particularly at the company level.
Fire prevention and mitigation play a critical role in our profession and directly impact the services we provide. We will start with this basic formula: Good Fire Prevention = Great Fire Department Operations. Now consider the first part of the equation, Good Fire Prevention. How do you get there?
Good Fire Prevention: It Takes a Culture
The rich history and tradition and tradition of the fire service makes us what we are today. In fact, many argue it is what makes change in our industry so difficult. We tend to have an attitude of “We have always done it that way.” Many of you remember when hazmat was new to the service or when your fire department did not provide emergency medical services (EMS). There will soon be a generation of fire service personnel who can’t believe terrorism was not on the forefront of our training topics. On the positive side, we have an opportunity to create a generation that thinks fire prevention was always everyone’s principle job!
Fire professionals have made progress. We have decreased our fire incidents and are able to focus on EMS, urban search and rescue (USAR), and so on. We now tend to move toward customer service and firefighter safety, and health initiatives are becoming more prevalent. However, although progress is being made on operational issues, we still have not universally embraced fire prevention and mitigation–our most critical core service. Operational focus and myopic concentration on response rather than prevention are common behaviors and group norms that are unfortunately engrained in the culture of many fire departments. Departments ranging from large suburban to volunteer tend to view fire prevention as “busy” or “feel-good” work performed by another group in the fire department. How can you change these beliefs and norms, and is it really necessary to do so?
Many fire suppression personnel see and can recite the value of fire prevention efforts, but do they place equal or higher value on the operational response duties they perform? Many will argue that they did not join a fire department to do inspections or educate kids. They joined to fight fires or be a medic. As a profession, we need to begin a cultural shift to engage fire service personnel on how fire prevention efforts benefit them directly by altering their working environment. Fire departments need to incorporate fire prevention efforts as part of the basic job descriptions for fire suppression personnel. We do not have to wait until the professional qualification standards force us to address this. Fire departments can modify their job descriptions now. These efforts then need to be linked to the performance reviews of the firefighter. We need to foster and manage a culture that incorporates fire prevention as our premier effort.
Every year we dedicate a day for a Safety Stand-Down for review and training of safety topics of our job. These topics are entirely centered on the response and operational aspects of our duties. Wouldn’t it make more sense to provide equal or even more time for learning how a fire sprinkler system works and what is required to make sure it keeps working? A fire controlled by a fire sprinkler system is a safer situation for the responding crews than a fire situation that drives all the training we can provide on self-contained breathing apparatus, building construction, flashover, and collapse.
As fire protection professionals, we must continue to focus on the best way to provide service to our customers in the most economical way possible. Preventing or mitigating fires is far more economical than suppressing them. The task at hand is to get all members of a department to buy into the cultural shift and understand that fire prevention is everyone’s job. A critical component to this endeavor is to have the company officers lead by example and embrace proactive solutions rather than reactive fixes–to strive for the most effective customer service possible. The most reasonable and economic solution will always be the prevention of bad and tragic situations before we ever have to respond. If company officers develop that fundamental understanding, they can then lead their companies to a greater understanding of how fire prevention positively impacts fire department emergency operations and firefighter safety. The net result is that everyone on a company goes home at the end of every shift and life and property losses fall to the lowest levels practically possible. That result proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have a GREAT fire department.
Part 2 will examine how fire prevention efforts positively impact fire department operations.
Brett Lacey is the fire marshal for the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department. He is a professional engineer and certified safety professional. He is co-author of Fire Prevention Applications (Fire Protection Publications). He has served on various technical committees including NFPA 1031, IFSTA Committee for Inspection Practices, and Fire Detection and Suppression Systems and the Colorado Fire Marshal’s Association Code Committee. He has been an instructor for two community colleges and has been employed in the private sector as an HPR loss control representative and safety engineer. He has more than 27 years of experience in the fire service in a career and volunteer capacity as a nationally registered paramedic, firefighter, and fire protection engineer.
Paul Valentine is a 14-year veteran of and fire marshal for the Mount Prospect (IL) Fire Department, previously serving as fire protection engineer. He has five years of fire protection engineering experience at a Department of Energy research laboratory and as a loss control consultant in the insurance industry. He has a bachelor of science degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from Oklahoma State University and a master of science degree in management and organizational behavior from Benedictine University. He is a graduate from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. He is also a principal committee member of the NFPA 1037 Fire Marshal Professional Qualification Standard and co-author of Fire Prevention Applications.