THE FIRE DEPARTMENT AS THE COMMUNITY CRISIS DEPARTMENT

THE FIRE DEPARTMENT AS THE COMMUNITY CRISIS DEPARTMENT

En route to a discussion of mission statements for fire departments, the change officer stumbled over a fundamental obstacle: How does one define “fire department”? A small sampling of mission statements from fire departments across the country verifies that defining “fire department” is a problem. You can’t write a mission statement for a diffuse and ill-defined operation.

Suffice it to say that there are fire departments that do nothing but fight fires. A few others do practically everything—except firefighting—for the community. The spectrum between the extremes is fully represented. Such chaos may be nondefinable, but the persistent change officer does not surrender easily. He/she detects the emergence of the Community Crisis Department in his/her own community and elsewhere.

The change officer is an unelected, unappointed, and often unappreciated position filled by one or morepersons in every fire department in the nation. The job properly belongs to the chief officer. Lacking that, any line officer or rank-and-file member may enter into the role by default. The change officer reads the fire service literature avidly, converses broadly with his/her kindred in neighboring departments, is future-oriented, and serves as gadfly for essential change in every aspect of the organization.

DEFINE YOUR DEPARTMENT YOURSELF

Several years ago a spray-can philosopher painted one of the driving principles of life for all to read on an expressway overpass north of Ann Arbor, Michigan: “Define yourself, or be defined.” That statement is so true; it’s almost worth risking a fenderbender to read it twice.

Fire administrators endure a host of the well-intended encamped against them who are busy defining their tasks: the city manager, mayor, council, town board, and local newspaper—not to mention the average citizen whose expectations of the local fire department are titillated by romantic notions of the fire service televised into the comforts of every home in the community. If the fire service does not define itself, then it soon will be defined by others. The definition is never final. It is the fluid product of a host of intrinsic and extrinsic forces acting to shape it.

This change officer writes from the standpoint of more than a quarter century of volunteer fire service, witnessing the shift in balance locally between a “fire” department that also did occasional “resuscitator” calls to a full-spectrum emergency services agency running 10 times as many calls, most of them human/healthrelated, with just an occasional oldfashioned structure fire now and then to keep life interesting.

The community will abide a chief officer who claims, “We don’t do cats in trees because we’re a fire department.” In truth, we enjoy numerous jokes about cat tools, usually selected from an assortment of firearms. And more than one apocryphal story lurks in the lore and legends of the fire service about the ladder company rescuing a cat from a tree. The cat then hid under the truck and promptly got run over as the truck pulled away from the curb.

The chief officer who dares to say, “We don’t do kids through the ice” is a person who, for some reason, craves stress, pain, and a short career, because there surely is a newspaper editor in town who will roast him/her for dinner. And bon appetit!

THE STARTING POINT

There it begins. Most fire departments will do kids through the ice. If we do kids through the ice, then what else are we willing to do in addition to firefighting?

In many communities across the country, only one organization is available on a moment’s notice; maintains swift and reliable vehicles equipped with radios, emergency lighting, ropes, and other tools; and boasts a command structure to safeguard comrades and clients alike. The ropes may be rotten and the command structure as spineless as a jellyfish, but the fire department likely will get the call when a kid goes through the ice or locks himself in the bathroom. Fire departments to some degree always have acted as the Community Crisis Department. Every year there seems to be less reason for denying this.

In a recent editorial, Bill Manning, editor of Fire Engineering, gathered a short list of the intrinsic and extrinsic forces responsible for this: “Fire/EMS, together with fire/haz mat and fire/ rescue, is proof that the fire service is expanding into an emergency network.” This is true for the following reasons:

  • A natural evolution brought about by the need to survive in fiscally demanding times.
  • A combination of management and union politics.
  • An overall declining number of fires dictating expansion of the fire department’s responsibilities.
  • The fire service filling an obvious need in or fulfilling its obligation to the community.
  • Its quick response time, making it especially suited to administering at least basic life support.

Two undercurrents must be detected here: Fire departments that do their “fire” work properly in healthy communities conceivably could put themselves out of business when the fire prevention aspect is performed so thoroughly that fire suppression no longer is necessary, and the general condition of the community dictates the type and level of fire service activity.

The first undercurrent smacks of faraway idealism and probably is not attainable. Hut consider, by contrast, that there is no possibility of putting a vital human/health services agency out of business, since human mortality and all the avenues leading to it can be delayed but never fully prevented. Our fundamental job is to safeguard human life and delay mortality as long as possible. It is only natural, therefore, that forward-looking fire departments are embracing the full spectrum of human/health emergency services.

SELF-SUFFICIENCY IS THE GOAL

A good argument can be waged for the position that the quantity of firefighting activity is directly proportional to the quality of life in the community. Dysfunctional and diseased communities seem to produce more fires. This is as true in wilderness areas where underemployed miners and forest workers (allegedly) may set wildfires in hopes of picking up a day’s pay from the Wildfire Division as it is in the depths and pits of the Big City where firesetting may even have a demonstrable recreational aspect about it.

The relative health of a community can be measured by its ability to care for itself, by its ability to remain selfsufficient. When a community no longer is healthy, it becomes diseased and dysfunctional. Firefighting activity and fire loss rise proportionately. Fire prevention becomes a joke. Fire suppression becomes every thing.

By the same token, when a community is resigned to helpless waiting until an external agency (read: ambulance service) arrives to provide emergency health care, that community may be judged diseased and dysfunctional.

The change officer envisions a selfsufficient community, able to care for itself under all normal emergency circumstances, just as a normal person is able to overcome gravity in the morning and enter into a daily routine without much outside help. When you can’t get up in the morning and you’re covered w ith sores and the bed is wet around you, that’s pretty good evidence you’re sick and in need of outside assistance. That will happen to all of us eventually, but we would do well to put it off as long as we can. It is even better when we recover good health and take charge of our destiny once more. By analogy, this is a valid model for our communities.

Editor Manning quotes his predecessor, James F. Casey, who certainly deserves the wide respect he garnered throughout the fire service. As early as 1971 Casey wrote: “The volunteer departments years ago saw ambulance service as a logical extension of their fire service and adopted it with enthusiasm.”

An implicit historical error comes to light here. The partitioning of emergency services long has been taken for granted. The reunification is slowly dawning. In the best interest of healthy, self-sufficient communities, it could be argued that there never should have been a segmentation of emergency services between sticks, bricks, and human bodies in the first place. One need not dwell on the irascible history of early volunteer fire departments, which at worst became strutting, brawling, hard-drinking “insurance” companies carving out the most exciting territory for themselves to conquer, leaving the mundane aspects of human suffering for others less adventuresome to treat. They sliced the pie to their own advantage and left the crumbly parts behind.

Given enough legislation and responsible administration, the best of these early firefighting units gradually gelled into the truly great professional fire departments of the past 100 years. But the die was cast more than a century ago. The best of them became renowned fire departments in the narrow sense, and not as broad spectrum human service agencies. Therein lies the historic error that is slowly but painfully being corrected by the emergence of a holistic view of the Community Crisis Department. In the end, human safety and well-being are more important than sticks and bricks, and human health crises are more manageable than they were a century ago. Manning has listed the variety of intrinsic and extrinsic pressures forcing this rebirth.

By this argument, the existence of an emergency services organization devoted exclusively to fire suppression—and devouring huge chunks of the municipal budget in the process— is an historical anachronism. That revelation well may provoke absolute, unmitigated outrage among fire service diehards. Saying it aloud might cost a careless fire administrator his/ her job. But city managers—a whole new’ breed of clever buggers—are keenly aware of it, and they are applying considerable leverage to correct it.

As the fire service is reborn as the primary community crisis agency, the change officer finds occasion for rejoicing that all our expensive equipment—all those red, white, and yellow trucks; all those red lights and sirens; and all those capable, compassionate, well-trained personnel are increasingly devoting themselves to the rapid management of the full spectrum of our community crises in the interest of maintaining healthy, selfsufficient, and functional communities.

Fire department? Fire/rescue? Fire/ haz mat? Community Crisis Department? By any other name, the rose is smelling sweeter all the time.*

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