DEFINING AND REDEFINING THE FIRE SERVICE, PART 2
BY CARL F. WELSER
As noted previously, the local fire department does not exist for the sake of its own history. Departments that look forward to a positive future are able to redefine themselves continually according to the unique requirements of the communities they serve. Communities, like every living thing, will eventually deteriorate unless energy is poured into them from several sources. The local fire department, as the complete community crisis organization, can be one of the most important sources of this vital energy.
The core mission aim is very broad. “If you insist on having an accident, sudden illness, or any other crisis, have it here, because you won`t get better care anywhere else.” This best expresses the social contract that binds us together as human beings.
None of us is as self-sufficient as we may think. The typical human response to a crisis is a display of a sense of urgency bordering on immediacy. The worst-case scenario is panic: “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” It happens to the best of us.
In a crisis, we want something to happen, and right now! An objective person arriving to take charge of and deal with the situation from a calmer perspective is often what is needed to mitigate the crisis.
In the dispatch business, the purpose of Protocol One Response is to send the local fire department to every conceivable emergency so that incident command can be established in every circumstance. Some would dismiss Protocol One Response as mere palliative action. It may be true that the arrival of the fire department at the unlikeliest situations represents only a kind of placebo–like giving sugar pills to terminally ill patients to make them feel better. But that does not minimize the importance of our willingness to respond to every reported crisis in the community setting. This is supported by abundant anecdotal testimony in every community-based fire department that practices it.
Fire departments reluctant to serve as the complete community crisis organization might feel more comfortable thinking of themselves as a kind of rapid intervention team for citizens caught in a crisis. If there is any other local agency with equipment and training equal to or exceeding that of the fire department, then it should definitely be the first responding agency, and the fire department can stay home. The prospect of this seems doubtful.
Most progressive communities support one or more extended care agencies such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and others to which citizens in crisis should be referred as rapidly as possible. Without any willing follow-up agencies, the fire department, as the complete community crisis organization, would be faced with the tough decision of whether to terminate command and abandon the afflicted citizens at whatever point they find themselves when the time comes to depart. This sounds harsh and unfeeling written in black and white, but that may be the rule in communities sliding toward dysfunction.
The purpose of the fire department`s responding within its jurisdiction to every conceivable emergency–situations of substance along with the goofy ones, including some calls which most would consider hopelessly beyond the normal competence of a fire department–is predicated on the incident command system. We establish incident command to ensure life safety, scene stabilization, mitigation, and property conservation. That means one thing for fire departments struggling to remain traditional fire departments, but it means a whole lot more for the department evolving into the complete community crisis organization.
Traditional fire departments had less need for people skills, but in fact the opposite may have been true. Remaining tightly bonded as a team at an emergency scene and otherwise aloof from all the external human details eliminates a number of distractions. Just concentrate on RECEO vs. Get the job done. Take up the hose when the fire grows cold and dead, and go home. But the citizens in our community did not often write thank-you notes for services rendered at their structure fires.
In contrast, within the complete community crisis organization, there is an equal need for “people skills” as any other. The Pew Charitable Trust recently published the results of a study wherein respondents were asked where they lodged their greatest sense of confidence. The answers, in this order, were: family members, fellow church members, and the local fire department. That is too good a rating to surrender easily.
Without a doubt, an impulsive yet teachable spirit still exists within the fire service today. That`s good. The Tasmanian spirit (the tamed Tasmanian devil, a familiar T-shirt logo often displayed at firefighter conventions) is what allows fire departments operating at a moderate risk to extinguish fires that are markedly more dangerous in a plastic age. The tamed Taz also represents the energy needed to offset the tendency of communities to deteriorate.
When the Tasmanian spirit is dispatched to a purely human situation (“Hospice Patient–Deceased,” for example), the enthusiasm to act must be tempered with a large dose of people skills. These skills are priceless but teachable.
No crisis is beneath our service. Bringing the human touch from the community to individuals in moments of crisis is never a waste of resources. This is true even for strangers just passing through. There is a grand old story told about a stranger assisting another stranger who was beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the roadside. This story provides the basis for some important legislation that grants responders whatever limited legal immunity they enjoy when acting in the spirit of the Good Samaritan.
Organizations must justify their existence to justify their budgets, especially when the budget is drawn from public money. Thus, many fire departments are seeking additional venues primarily to ensure their own survival. The realization of the need to do more things to justify their existence often opens the back door to Protocol One Response for some departments. Slipping in through the back door is not always a first-class act. But it gets you inside.
To diversify their services, some of the bottom-line reasoning becomes admittedly cruder and more rudely fiscal. The crudest bottom line is this: Three structure fires per year are hardly enough to justify all that big, shiny red equipment. And in our estimation, it is ordained that fire apparatus be large and painted red. It`s written somewhere. So we must diversify. But there are better reasons for doing what we do.
It used to be an adage in the service station business–when many gas stations still functioned as service stations–that the best way to please a customer within five minutes was to wash his tires. This held especially true back in the days when white sidewalls were considered standard equipment. It never offended anyone to see clean wheels, even when it dramatized how badly the rest of the car needed washing.
Fire departments willing to redefine themselves may veer off in any number of short-haul directions that will generate a measurable amount of goodwill, make some people happier, and earn for the organization an upgrade in the public eye. But any amount of wheel washing eventually betrays itself for what it is. Only long-term solutions really count.
The core mission of a public service organization is defined neither by its name nor by its history. If that were the case, then libraries would shun computers and stick to books; and the broader service programs of the United Way organization would be limited to dishing out used clothing exactly as some of the predecessor agencies did in years gone by.
The core mission of the fire department is not defined by its historic name but by rising to meet the unique challenges presented to it by the community it serves.
The fire department willing and able to redefine itself as the complete community crisis organization no longer feeds on such energy as the community can provide just for the amusement and survival of the organization. It instead becomes a source of energy feeding life back into the community.
If the fire department is unable or unwilling to redefine itself continually as a positive infusion of energy into the community it serves, then it can only mean that either the community or the department or both must already be on the downward path toward the eventual dysfunction and deterioration that befalls all living things. Be-cause a fire department–especially a volunteer fire department–is also a kind of living thing.
CARL F. WELSER is a 30-year veteran and training officer of the Hamburg (MI) Fire Department, Inc., and a member of the Fire Engineering editorial advisory board.