The Operational Cycle of the Brazilian Fire and Emergency Services

Photo courtesy of the Governo do Estado de São Paulo.

By Thiago John

As the first Brazilian fire officer to ever attend the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, I became familiar with the technical problem vs. adaptive challenge perspective as described in one of the program’s many books—Leadership on the Line by Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz.

This work encourages readers to get on the balcony and adopt adaptive leadership. Many times, it is quite difficult for leaders to “see the dance and the dancers from the floor.” By getting on the balcony, leaders can afford to reflect on the bigger picture. This analogy is not far from the truth. I am an example of someone who had the opportunity to view not only the bigger picture but a whole diverse array of different frames of references. I came all the way from Brazil and learned from the best in the American Fire Service. And believe me, my balcony view was extraordinary!

First and foremost, I realized that we—the worldwide fire and emergency services community—are a brotherhood, and a very small one. Once you get involved with the inner workings of the system, you begin to notice that we share the same people; the same training; the same firehouse routines; and, believe me, even the same jokes. I learned much from small volunteer departments and large career ones. I made friends in training and credentialing organizations and shared thoughts with bureaucrats. And I am thankful for everyone I met and everything I learned thus far.

With this article, I offer my gratitude toward these people and the extraordinary experiences I have lived. I would like our brotherhood to grasp a little bit of my side of the job just as I have experienced everyone else’s; by showing American firefighters how the Brazilian Fire Service operates. Thus, from now on, I will provide readers with a balcony view of my “dance floor.” However, despite all our similarities, we are still quite different. Some of those difference follow.

The Brazilian Fire Service is state based. The Brazilian Constitution states that state police and fire departments are institutions that are organized based on hierarchy and discipline and serve as military personnel of the states, federal district, and territories. Hence, each State of the Federation has its own Military Firefighters Corps. There is no city, county, township, or other type of fire department. It is comprised of 26 States and one Federal District. In other words, one fire department per state.

We are all military personnel. Again, according to our constitution, the Military Firefighters Corps are military organizations of the states, the federal district, and the territories, responsible to provide civil defense, fire suppression, fire prevention, fire investigation, search and rescue activities, and emergency medical services (EMS) to all urban and rural areas within their jurisdictions. By force of the same Constitution, the state Military Firefighters Corps are also military reserve and auxiliary forces of the Brazilian Army. We are all part of the National Public Security and Civil Defense Systems of Brazil.

What does that all mean? It means we are full-time career firefighters, although we are also trained and prepared, as military personnel, to engage in any national sovereignty issues that involves the armed forces. We are, in some way, similar to the U.S. National Guard; we end up getting the best of both worlds.

We all work under the same principle: the operational cycle. In what I believe is our “cherry on top,” our “pièce de résistance,” every state fire department in Brazil is organized to deliver its services. Remember, we do it all through what we call the Brazilian Fire and Emergency Services’ “operational cycle.” This so-called “cycle” is divided into four simultaneous phases, all of them integrated. Each apply to any and all activity we perform. It also means that every state fire department has its organizational structure, procedures, administration, and infrastructure going around that cycle.

The four phases which comprise the operational cycle are as follows:

  • The normative phase. This is related to norms, rules, standards, and regulations. In this phase, state fire departments are responsible for providing fire and safety standards to serve as the legal reference and expert parameter. Each fire department must create building codes, wildland management, fire bans, EMS protocols, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and every other written reference for our job. State fire departments are also responsible for assigning personnel to participate in national committees responsible to develop federal regulations.
  • The preventive phase. This is related to prevention and risk reduction efforts. Again, the fire departments are the ones that run the show. Every community risk reduction effort, fire protection project analysis, EMS health message, and any other preventive activity is our responsibility. It means that our organizational structure is also built upon the preventive side of the job.
  • The combative (or suppressive) phase. This is related to operations, where all of the action takes place. Fire suppression, search and rescue, EMS (basic and advanced life support), wildland fire, and every other hands-on job is delivered during this phase.
  • The investigative phase. This is where this entire cycle comes together. Within every state fire department, there is one sector or division responsible for providing fire and emergency services investigations. Investigation efforts consider everything and generate data that retrofeeds the whole system.

So, how do they all work together as a smart cycle?

Let’s assume we have a certain type of fire incident within our state. Stations are constantly being assigned to these types of incidents, and the executive staff is starting to notice some patterns. The incident commanders provide the operations report, and the investigators identify the origin and cause of these fires. Their analysis and data from those fires are sent to the division responsible for protocols and standards. The normative guys will review and analyze this information to verify the need to change the standards (or even the SOPs).

The prevention people will reinforce prevention efforts and enforce eventual changes in codes and building construction standards. Operations personnel will adopt new, improved, safer approaches based on redesigned SOPs, and the training procedures and fitness requirements will change. The cycles go on and on. Cool, right? However, even though it seems like a perfect model of conducting business, it is far from a “fairytale ending.” Like all public service systems, we face several restrictions, mostly because of budget cuts, lack of personnel, or infrastructure.

This was a quick explanation of the Brazilian way of conducting the businesses of fire and emergency services. It is our dance floor, and our dance flows around that “operational cycle.”

Thiago John, EFO, CEM, IAAI-CFI, is a 22-year fire officer and a fire major (O-4) in Brazil’s Military Firefighters Corps of the Federal District. He is trained and credentialed in firefighting, fire prevention, fire investigation, search and rescue, wildland fire, and emergency medical services. John is also a 2016 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program.

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