BY KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR.
Within a few weeks of this article’s publication, I will have been at the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) for one year. That’s right, one year! My, how time flies when you are having fun! Fun may not always describe the experience; however, serving as the COO of the Fire Administration has been and continues to be the greatest experience of my fire service career. This article is a report on the USFA’s transformation process and how the USFA is going about the business of melding the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations into its day-to-day business.
After the release of the Blue Ribbon Panel report, a group of six fire service professionals assisted the staff of the Fire Administration in developing an action plan to integrate the Panel’s recommendations into a road map for the revitalization of the USFA. The result of these efforts was a document called the Action Plan Recommendations, which provides the framework for setting the direction of federal fire programs into the 21st century. The plan can be downloaded from the USFA Web site at www.fema.usfa.gov.
It is important to realize that the action plan document is dynamic and serves as a guide in working with the staff for implementing actions and programs. Organizational policies; budgetary constraints; and, most certainly, politics will at times impact the Action Plan.
The Action Plan included 176 recommendations, categorized into four topical areas:
- Core Mission Issues;
- Leadership and Communications Issues;
- Staff Development Issues; and
- Advocacy, Partnership, and Marketing Issues.
ACTION PLAN TEAMS ESTABLISHED
To evaluate and offer action steps to address each of the 176 recommendations, four Action Plan Teams were established. Team members are from each of the three organizational components of the USFA. They are to establish solutions to the recommendations and assign to each recommendation the level of priority in which it should be acted on by the USFA. In the development of reasonable, practical, and effective solutions to each recommendation, it was essential that continuity of direction and establishment of a vision be the responsibilities of USFA management.
Accomplishing this monumental task required the addition of management and leadership expertise within the USFA. FEMA Director James Lee Witt supported this request and provided the means for bringing onboard temporarily Chief Charlie Dickinson, who has retired from the Pittsburgh Fire Department. He will provide the necessary level of management continuity. Dickinson is performing a yeoman’s job in establishing this critical function within the teams.
With Dickinson’s guidance, the Action Plan Teams methodically follow the process of critically reviewing, researching, and identifying the background surrounding each of the recommendations. This also includes establishing issue viability and sustainability, as well as whether financial resources are available to meet new requirements. Viability of an issue is best explained by the recommendation to eliminate the date from the front of USFA publications and use only an edition number. In researching this recommendation, the team identified that having a date on the front of a federal document is in fact a federal policy and is not subject to change. Therefore, removal of the date from the front of any USFA publication is not a viable issue that can be addressed by the Fire Administration. However, as identified by the team evaluating the issue, this does not preclude an edition number and a date from appearing on the front of a USFA-produced document for identification purposes.
Team members are encouraged to provide their recommendations and considerations regardless of their experience or knowledge base in the particular issue being evaluated. This is a method of empowering team members to broaden their knowledge, skills, and abilities through their efforts in being contributing members of the team. Teams then forward their recommendations to senior staff for review and determination of assignment for implementation. Sometimes recommendations are sent back to the team for further research or refinement, but most of the time the recommendations are approved as submitted. This fact serves as an example of the trust and confidence that exist between the teams and the management of the Fire Administration and serves as a sign of forward movement and a transformation of the USFA that was hoped for by the Blue Ribbon Panel.
Through the dynamics of the team process, the USFA has been able to complete or establish within the USFA’s ongoing processes 17 of the 34 Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations. The effort of the team members demonstrates both FEMA’s and the USFA’s commitment to improve services and support of the nation’s fire service community. Again, the USFA is working in its entirety to come together to make an impact and to move forward in partnership with the fire service, other allied fire service constituents, and the public. Such partnerships can be built only on a foundation of trust and commitment between the staff and management at the USFA.
Together, we are working with a team spirit and a new can-do attitude. Teams are going about the business of transforming the USFA into an organization of which all the fire service can be proud. Fueled by a catalyst of controversy highlighted by the Blue Ribbon Panel report, the USFA is poised to serve in a leadership role in the reduction of life and property loss from fire. I am excited to be involved in the process.
KENNETH O. BURRIS, JR., is the chief operating officer 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.