Reregulating the fire service

Reregulating the fire service

Reinventing the fire service? Make that reregulating the fire service. All across America, governments are struggling to “reinvent” themselves, shunning the old ways of doing business–taking, spending, and overregulating business. Indeed governments eager to join the “reinvention” bandwagon are spurred in part by Osborne and Gaebler`s influential Reinventing Government (1992). Under reinvention, regulations are reviewed, programs are scrutinized, and efforts to measure performance and justify new regulations are abounding. The drive toward decentralization–taking authority to the lowest level of government where responsibility should lie–is now part of the canon of public management. Organizations are told to manage for results, based on shared values and customer needs–not according to long lists of rules.

Amid this climate, which Osborne and Gaebler call an “American Glasnost,” is an obvious, if not flattering, reference to the Soviet Union`s experiments in increased freedom and private economic activity. A countertrend is alive and well in the U.S. fire protection community.

Filled with the desire to address the problems of the fire service, our organizations have stepped up emphasis on top-down, prescriptive regulation and a centralization of power at the national level. This “one-size-fits-all” approach is troubling for many reasons. Take the case of firefighter casualties. The last time I checked, everyone in the U.S. fire service was against firefighter casualties. Does this mean that continued prescriptive regulations (by so-called consensus standards) are in the best interests of the fire service or maybe even that other group, known as citizens, who are bearing the brunt of our poor record in fire safety?

The problem is simple. Assume a fixed budget for local fire protection. A local manager would evaluate the local fire problem and allocate resources to make the greatest impact on reducing fire losses. Continuing with our theoretical example, assume that this decision maker must train, equip, and staff a fire department. The discretionary budget for this department–and all others subject to national standards, voluntarily or involuntarily, through government regulation and legal oversight–is being whittled away by a succession of requirements applying to everything from warning lights on fire apparatus to mandatory training in subjects as diverse as how to drive across rail crossings, set brake switches on fire apparatus, and respond to incidents in confined spaces.

Each of these items on the long and growing list of “top-town” solutions is a result of a response to a well-publicized tragedy or tragedies. They are morally understandable responses to what is viewed as a need to protect the fire service from itself. Individually, they are worthy areas of intervention. Together, they are an ill-planned and uncoordinated group of programs thrust on a beleaguered local government agency already struggling to provide services.

The effect is simple–less flexibility for local officials to respond to the local fire problem. Less money and time are available for training and staff on such uninspiring pursuits as basic firefighting, fire inspection, public fire education, and critically needed office training programs. These programs lie at the root of the weakness in the U.S. fire service and our nation`s fire problem.

Ironically, Osborne and Gaebler point to the dismal record of the U.S. fire service in attempting to prevent fires rather than prepare (and spend) to attack the next one as inspiration for their rule of that government should stress prevention rather than cure. The United States has the largest, best equipped, and most experienced fire service in the world. Our fire incidence, death, and injury rates, although improving, remain among the highest in the Western industrialized world …. Is the answer more fire apparatus? More personnel? More stations? More standards? Until we measure carefully the costs and benefits of our well-intended efforts, we will never know.

Maybe some national organization will publish a standard to tell us the answer. Then again, maybe it won`t. Perhaps the fire service will start to insist on some answers before we specify the next “solution” to the problem of the moment.

Charles R. Jennings, Ph.D.

Urban Management Consulting

Peekskill, New York

Assistant Professor

John Jay College of Criminal Justice

The City University of New York

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