This is the first of a new monthly column that will be devoted to keeping you informed of the activities of the United States Fire Administration (USFA). I would like to thank Fire Engineering for providing us with this column space, as communication with the fire service is an integral component of our commitment to change. It is imperative that the USFA highlight its successes and challenges to foster a more informed fire service.
The new year has opened the door of the next millennium, and the USFA is poised to cross that threshold and become a world class organization in the areas of education and training, fire technical programs, data collection and management, and research for the nation’s fire services. The organizational vision is to become the focal point for successful program implementation to address the myriad issues and challenges facing the nation’s fire services today and in the future.
The year 1999 brought much debate and dialogue in regard to the state of the USFA. The nation’s fire service representatives stepped up and voiced their concerns as well as their desire to see a change in the agency. Comments and ideas from the Blue Ribbon Committee and the Stakeholders Meeting were assimilated and handed off to create a strategic plan for the future. The close of 1999 brought about the completion of this plan, and I would be remiss if I did not recognize the untiring efforts of those responsible: Chief Richard Marinucci, Chief Ron Coleman, Chief Mike Smith, Chief Rich Powell, Assistant Chief Monica Higgins, Chief John Rukavina, and Chief Fred Windisch. In addition, the staff of the International Association of Fire Chiefs was invaluable in its support of and efforts in the creation of this plan.
THE USFA ACTION PLAN
This action plan is the USFA’s road map for success. It is divided into four areas and identifies pertinent issues and recommended actions for improving each. The areas are as follows:
- Core Mission. Although there is an ongoing debate as to the definition of the USFA’s core mission-that is, education vs. training and/or education and training vs. every other USFA program-there is a consensus that the USFA and its NFA have not leveraged each and every opportunity to deliver their products to the local level. In response, the USFA will be developing and enhancing its ability to utilize cutting-edge technology in distance learning as well as evaluating every course to ensure that its content is current; is relevant; and, most of all, meets the needs of the nation’s fire service.
- Leadership and Communications. The reports identified above referenced a leadership problem within the USFA. After the Draft Action Plan was released for public comment, many of the comments received referred to this area of concern as nothing more than Management 101. To characterize the problem in this way truly oversimplifies the issue. The contributing factor to this problem lies in the continuity and quality of leadership. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director James Lee Witt put in place the methodology to address this issue by establishing the chief operating officer position. Within that position lies the continuity of leadership that transitions administrations and the responsibility to provide the quality of leadership identified in the Action Plan. With leadership comes communications because the one cannot exist without the other.
- Staff Development. The report identifies the lack of programs and/or methodologies to enable the staff to maintain proficiency in their areas of expertise. It is extremely important to the nation’s fire service that those individuals responsible for the educational and fire programs of the USFA are capable of remaining on the cutting edge of technology and knowledge within their respective program fields. With the rate of information and technology half-life accelerating at an ever-increasing speed, staff career development is a critical challenge. As theUSFA explores the use of distance learning technology for the delivery of programs, it must also explore the use of this technology to enhance staff development. A large part of this, however, is the willingness and commitment to seek and accept unique opportunities of service as they arise. As an agency, we must explore and develop ways for the USFA staff to experience the street-level delivery of emergency and mitigation services in a multiplicity of geographical areas.
- Advocacy, Partnerships, and Marketing Issues. This area of concern envelops a multitude of issues and opportunities. It holds the key to our success on refocusing a fire service research agenda. The USFA is exploring a partnership with the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) and is working toward developing a laundry list of research issues. However, it is going to take more than a partnership with NIST to rejuvenate our research and development efforts for the future. We must be able to partner with allied professions with similar interests to accomplish this goal.
With partnerships comes marketing. It is virtually impossible to find a credible partner without first effectively marketing oneself. With this marketing effort, we must reassure our future partners that the USFA is indeed a credible force within the nation’s fire service arena. Through this effort, the USFA will dispel the notion that it is not equal to the tasks put before us.
Whether perception or reality, the common theme that runs through all the documents mentioned above is that the USFA has disappointed and let down the nation’s fire service. It accomplishes little to argue against that combined thought, as this perception of the USFA is in fact our reality. Our mission is to change that perception and become a world class organization and an example of the great things that can happen when an entire profession works toward a common goal. As a fire service, we oftentimes lack the will to set aside ego and special interest to work together for the accomplishment of a singular purpose. Surely a sound, thriving, and successful USFA is a singular goal worthy of our combined efforts.
FEMA and the USFA are committed to that goal. Director Witt has confirmed his commitment by securing for the USFA the largest budget increase in program dollars in many years. Chief Richard Marinucci initiated the beginnings of what will prove to be a significant transformation of the USFA, the outcome of which will provide the foundation for the fire service of the future.
KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR., is the chief operating office of the U.S. Fire Administration. He retired as fire chief from the City of Marietta, Georgia. He has an MPA from Kennesaw State University and a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology from the University of Cincinnati. He formerly served as treasurer of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.