BUILDING BRIDGES TO THE 21st CENTURY
BY JACK J. MURPHY, JR.
During the 1980s, the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) participated in several Stonebridge conferences that served as a needs assessment for the fire service. The conferences were limited to fire service personnel only. Out of these conferences the United States Fire Prevention and Control Administration was born. Today, we know it as the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the National Fire Academy (NFA). Since that time, the fire community has reviewed the needs assessments and implemented necessary changes and challenges to move ahead. By working in this closed environment, the fire service did not focus on the needs of the customer and how we can work together within our communities. At the same time, the fire service did not work closely enough with federal, state, and local governments in speaking for their needs to provide the community with a basic fire service department.
This past summer, a National Volunteer Fire Service Summit was held at the NFA. The goal was to build bridges to the 21st century through improved communications from within the fire service as well as with the federal, state, and local governments.
Some of the volunteer fire service concerns addressed at the Summit follow.
Heart attacks. Heart attacks, resulting from stress, kill more firefighters on the fireground than all the other causes of death combined. For the fire service to reduce heart attack-related deaths, some consideration must be given to stress management, wellness programs, and annual health risk analysis for each firefighter.
Retention and recruitment. The USFA/ NVFC three-year retention and recruitment study identified that the volunteer fire service must demonstrate its needs to the community. The community would then have a greater understanding of the benefits of the volunteer fire service, thereby promoting and protecting the 350-year-old institution of volunteer firefighting in America.
Some of the challenges the fire service faces when trying to amend the retention and recruitment root problems are leadership problems, time demands, training requirements, increasing call volume, changes in the “nature of the business,” changes in sociological conditions (in rural areas), federal legislation and regulations, the increasing use of combination departments, the higher cost of housing (in affluent communities), and the aging of communities.
The most outstanding retention problem in the volunteer fire service is leadership. The continued effort by many departments to vote in a chief simply because “Everyone qualifies as chief” has drastically affected the retention of firefighters who value a fire officer who has demonstrated over time solid management procedures and the willingness to manage change. The lack of quality leadership hinders both the retention of firefighters and those who chose to remain in a dormant stage until that chief leaves office. Improving the selection process for future leaders of the volunteer fire service will enable firefighters to be totally committed to their community service.
One suggestion is to look for ways to create nonfire service volunteer-related positions that will provide the volunteer firefighter with more time to perform fire service-related duties. Areas include administrative assistant duties for the chief of department; finance and the budget process; maintenance of equipment inventory and replenishment program; a legislative position to monitor the local, state, and federal legislative bodies; and working on insurance policies and social events.
CURRENT AND FUTURE STATUS
To consider the current and future status of the volunteer fire service, the Summit participants were divided into three interactive groups to envision the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats that affect the fire service.
Strengths. The volunteer fire service derives its strength from a number of sources: a long history of tradition; the trust of the public; the vital services given to the community; the tax savings, cost effectiveness, and economic clout that result from volunteerism; a networking system that establishes open lines of communications within the fire station, on the fireground, and at the mutual-aid and county levels; a positive service image that is second to none; the camaraderie in the fire station when all work together and support one another; and a leadership that motivates the firefighter to contribute more than just answering calls.
Weaknesses. Many of our weaknesses are created by limited thinking and subjective agendas that alienate a fire company: the “Everyone-qualifies-as-chief” syndrome, which creates the most retention problems; the fragmentation of staff by petty infighting among splinter groups that creates a nonfriendly atmosphere; officers qualifying for rank with limited or no fire service training; failure to recognize firefighters who contribute more than just answering the call; deficiencies in membership investigations–lacking a thorough committee inquiry and/or a police background check; mutual aid that needs designated task forces to perform specialized tasks; communications and networking limited to just local fire companies; the lack of a full understanding of the budget process; resistance to change; limited daytime staffing response; and tarnished image with the public.
Opportunities. An open forum for creative thinking within each fire department can give birth to many opportunities to improve the fire service. Such opportunities include the following: establishing legislative networks and political clout with all levels of government; increasing the roles of code enforcement, fire prevention, and public education; establishing a solid “back to basics” training program that will provide a foundation for more technical training; forming a coalition council with community groups; exploring consolidation as a means to improving the fire department; and seeking new technologies that will best serve the local fire department.
Threats. Outside threats to the survival of many volunteer fire companies may come at any time. They include the following: lack of staffing to maintain a functional fire department, possibly resulting in the local governing body`s seeking assistance from privatization or organized labor; accountability of taxpayers seeking tax reductions and culpability of the fire company to purchase apparatus with excessive “glitter”; the demise of the middle class, families who depend on two incomes, and social changes that hinder people from volunteering; the urban interface that erodes existing town barriers; lack of funds to support the company functions; and the noticed threats from within that may come from not seeking out our strengths and implementing opportunities to improve the overall fire department.
IMPUT, SUPPORT NEEDED
To help promote a cooperative relationship with the legislative branches of government, the NVFC invited some nonfire service organizations to participate in the open forum. Invited were the Conference of Mayors, National Association of Towns and Townships, International City/County Management Association, National Counties Association, National Governors Association, and National League of Cities. The lack of participation from any legislative organizations should not signify that our overtures have fallen on deaf ears; it instead presents us with a greater challenge to continue working with the Congressional Fire Service Caucus, the individual state fire service institutes, and the local governing bodies for the passage of legislation that will benefit the fire service. Some recent federal legislative priorities follow.
H.R. 3247, Community Safety Act of 1998, provides continued funding to restock ambulances by hospitals.
H.R. 2523, Volunteer Firefighter Equipment Enhancement Act, allows emergency departments to use tax-exempt financing for ambulances and other emergency response vehicles.
H.R. 4229, 21st Century Fire and Public Safety Act, provides the fire service with $5 billion over five years for grants to local fire departments.
A success story is the passage of H.R. 3831, Children`s Sleepwear Safety Act of 1998, which requires the full restoration of fire safety standards pertaining to the flammability of children`s sleepwear.
To help build a bridge to the 21st century, volunteers must find better ways to enhance the recruitment and retention of firefighters; increase training in department management and leadership; reduce fireground heart attack deaths; network and become familiar with the needs of the communities they serve; and communicate those needs to the federal, state, and local governments. n
n JACK J. MURPHY, JR., was the fire marshal and former deputy chief of the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department. He is president of the Bergen County (NJ) Fire Chiefs Association; vice-chairman of the New York City Fire Safety Directors Association; an advisory board member of Fire Engineering; and educational coordinator and advisory board member of the FDIC. He is the author of Rapid Incident Command System (Fire Engineering, 1998).