Adaptation in the Fire Service

By John K. Murphy

A species adapts to its surrounding environment to survive. If unable to adapt, that species or entity will become extinct. It’s as simple as that. Look at the wooly mammoth, dinosaurs, and the dodo bird: size was an important factor in their survival, but it took a meteor or the ice age to turn that size advantage into a disadvantage. In the business world, small hospitals, telephone land lines, record stores, camera film, newspapers, pay phones, and many financial institutions are becoming or have become extinct. Why? Because of the failure to adapt or to change to the demands of a modern society or some planned obsolesce that took only time to accomplish.  

Is the fire service one of those entities that is doomed for extinction? “Maybe” is a poor word choice to determine an institution’s future; but if we don’t adapt to the current economic situation, we, too, will be doomed for extinction in the current way we conduct our business. Let’s look at the various departments that have had their budgets cut, reducing the number of firefighters, closing fire stations, and reducing overall services to the community. What are the fire departments doing to mitigate those situations? Where are the populist uprisings from our citizens to support us in our time of need? Where are the mass gatherings of our citizenry protesting such draconian reductions to a fundamental and vital service to the community? Have we been abandoned in OUR time of need? Isn’t there a 911 for the fire service? Apparently not!
It is a matter of adaptability for the fire service to survive in today’s economy. Fire chiefs with senior leadership working with the elected officials are required to think outside the box to create solutions to this economic crisis. The money is drying up, the grants are shrinking, and communities are looking to slash their budgets to preserve basic services–on a much reduced scale. In some cities, going from five or six firefighters to four or five firefighters per engine company or ladder truck is a crisis in that department. How about going from three firefighters to two firefighters as the situation worsens for thousands of small communities? Now there is a real crisis.
What do we do while we are “waiting” for additional resources to arrive so we can make a safe fire attack or rescue? These are tough choices that put firefighter’s lives at risk.
How should we adapt? One suggestion is to quit complaining about the current situation and work proactively with the elected leadership to take a measured response to the current economic situation. Did the fire leadership in Camden, New Jersey, work with the elected officials to blunt the impact of the reduction of firefighters? They probably did, and what a sad day for those firefighters—and sadder still for the community, which will suffer from the loss of those dedicated public servants.
What are you doing in your communities to adapt to the current economic situation? Regionalization and consolidation are “hard choices” for many departments. Merger is another term foreign to our industry, but those are terms your elected officials understand. The fire service does not need to go the way of the wooly mammoth, but now is the time to make substantial adaptive changes; tomorrow will be too late!
JOHN K. MURPHY, JD, MS, PA-C, EFO, retired as a deputy fire chief after 32 years of career service. He is a practicing attorney and is a frequent speaker on legal and medical issues at local, state, and national fire service conferences. He is a frequent contributing author to Fire Engineering and a podcast host.

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