Vickery’s Views on U.S. Fire Role
In a letter to Senator Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.), President Carter stated that Gordon E. Vickery, former chief of the Seattle Fire Department, “is in the most favorable position” to be appointed to head the United States Fire Administration—the new name of the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration. Carter wrote that his staff had found Vickery’s qualifications “outstanding.”
After Magnuson read Carter’s letter at a dinner during the fire administration’s Life Safety Conference in Seattle October 23-25, Dick Sylvia, Fire Engineering’s associate editor, interviewed Vickery at his office at Seattle City Light, the municipally owned utility he has headed as superintendent since he retired from the Seattle Fire Department in 1972.
Shortly after the interview Vickery was hired on a contract basis to work with the fire administration before his expected nomination by the President could be confirmed by the Senate, which was then in recess. The fire administration will soon become one of the agencies in the new Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).
The interview with Vickery follows:
Q. As you see it now, what are your major goals for the United States Fire Administration?
A. Actually, I think we have to talk about long-range and short-range goals first. “America Burning” defines some long-range goals, some things we try to achieve over a significant period of time. I have been away from the program—for six years—and I don’t think I have that many specifics regarding long-range goals.
There are some immediate problems—some immediate goals. Number one is to get the fire academy sited. I think that just absolutely has to be up front. We just have to get this site nailed down, wherever it might be, and get on with it. I think a significant part of the fire service, particularly the fully paid fire service, is deeply interested in what happens to the academy.
Secondly, I think there is absolutely no question but what—when talking about short-term goals—we have to dedicate a significant amount of energy to what our organization will look like within the new FEMA oganization. I see these as the two number one priorities. The short-range goals are really what I have to look at at the moment.
Q. What is your estimate of the fire administration position in FEMA? I ask this because there are some doubts raised about civil preparedness dominance.
A. I don’t share the concern of some of those who have been a little closer to the in-fighting and I think there are some wounds that can be healed. I’m optimistic that the fire service in America has sufficient talent—and the fire administration has sufficient talent—for us to prove to the new head of FEMA that we are a valuable part of his total team. So I just don’t share the concern and pessimism that I’ve heard expressed by some others. I’m very optimistic. I’ve found the few people I’ve met in the proposed FEMA organization to be fine people and I think they’re going to recognize we have something to offer them.
Serving volunteer fire fighters
Q. You mentioned a while ago that the interest in the United States Fire Academy was very high in the paid service. How do you think the fire administration can best serve the volunteer service?
A. Well, that’s going to be the major concern. As I have tried to accumulate and assimilate attitudes and feeling throughout the United States in the past month or so, I find a significant concern on the part of the volunteer group that they aren’t being served adequately and I believe I agree with them. I think we have to dedicate more effort, more talent and more money from the administration to delivering whatever we’re going to produce at the fire administration to volunteer fire fighters.
I suppose I have a rather unique sensitivity to their needs. I started first in the volunteer fire service in 1937 in Snohomish, Wash. I was a volunteer originally for t hree years and at the present time, I have a beach place across from Seattle and I am a part of the volunteer establishment there. So I think I have a rather intimate knowledge of their problems and needs and I think it’s going to be addressed—so far as I am concerned—in a significantly greater manner than it has been in the past four years.
Q. You are familiar, of course, with the St. Joseph College site in Emmitsburg, Md., that has been proposed. Do you feel that this would be adequate and the type of site you would want for the academy?
A. Well, I have not visited it, but I have had a briefing on it and I have slides of the facility. Not only would it be adequate, it obviously would be more than adequate. I think that in assessing it, we have to look at it in the sense of cost-effectiveness and whether other parts of government might want to use it, too. But it certainly has to be given serious consideration in site selection.
Use of academy site by others
Q. George Jett (member of the President’s reorganization team) mentioned that it w’ould enhance the credibility of the academy if it were colocated with other groups. Would you agree to that?
A. I agree with George and 1 was a little surprised that that subject hadn’t been addressed a little hit more thoroughly when the primary or initial review of Emmitsburg occurred. But I think we have to recognize, as I heard, that, some 200 sites were considered and were narrowed down eventually to three. Emmitsburg was one of them. I guess in the initial assessment, inasmuch as Margaret Webster was chosen, probably there wasn’t sufficient information developed. But I agree with George Jett that colocating certain capabilities that will exist in FEMA just makes good fiscal sense.
Q. What do you see as the working relationship of the fire administration with the Joint Council of National Fire Service Organizations?
A. Well, Idon’t know if you are aware of it or not, I did meet with the joint council for one day at Boston just a few weeks ago, and I think there are a lot of wounds there that have to be healed. I found it to be a very meaningful and productive meeting. I know almost every individual on the joint council personally, and I see a rather close working relationship with the joint council. Hopefully, we can sit down and present the fire administration program to the council members. We could then get comments and suggestions from them prior to our initiating something rather than after the fact. I think that a good relationship can be developed without a great deal of effort.
Fire academy programs
Q. One of the criticisms of the current programs of the National Fire Academy is that some of them have not been in the train-the-trainer mode. What do you feel about that?
A. Well, how you deliver what the ultimate product of the academy produces is something that probably hasn’t been totally defined yet. I don’t think anyone anticipated that they would have to do what they have been asked to do with the amount of money that was provided. So number one, you have some restraints in the financial sense. Secondly, I think there has been some lack of communication between the administration and the perceived needs—at least in the field.
You are again dealing with 50 separate entities as far as training capabilities in 50 different statessome good, some bad, some nonexistent. This is where I see one of the areas where joint council input would be helpful in guiding and suggest ing to the administration how we might better use the product of the academy. I think we have to also remember that the academy has not had an actual physical structure of buildings, so the ability to put it together—a total package just has been nonexistent.
I think there have been good people who have left because they were discouraged because they couldn’t see their final product out there to better serve America. I see that coming into focus very rapidly and I think we will be able to serve that need.
Q. Do you think that improving the fireground strategy and tactics of departments can reduce fire losses more effectively than additional public fire safety education programs?
A. Well, Dick, you are asking me something that I am really not current on. I’ve always had, frankly, a bug for fire prevention even though I think here in Seattle when I was chief we put together a total effort involving good equipment, good training and everything. My personal experience has been that you obviously have to have sufficient suppressive forces. You have to have a good combat fire fighting team.
On the other hand, there are a certain number of things that are happening to us in America that are going to dictate what we are going to have to do. As budgets lessen and as we have to become more cost-effective, we’re going to have to find a way to reduce the fire and life property loss, whatever that might be, and I just have a feeling that prevention—fire prevention although it’s practiced well in many areas is not practiced well in others. 1 would probably place a little more emphasis on this than some fire chiefs.
Q. In relation to that, how would you relate the relative effectiveness of public fire safety education on individuals and groups in contrast to more intensive inspections and code enforcement?
A. Well, I think you need both. Public education is of course the most difficult one to measure. It’s like selling any kind of safety program. It’s very difficult to put a qualitative value on it and prove something. You can with codes, we know. Fresno, Calif., is a city that chose to write a code requiring sprinklers rather than increase its fire forces. I would guess that as we march down the road, there will be a terribly great demand—a need—for public education, whether it be in school programs, or whatever. Codes become an everliving, ongoing thing that people can’t change because of moods or continuing campaigns. So I guess if I had to rate them one and two, I’d probably put codes number one and public education needed but number two.
Battle to reduce arson
Q. Throughout the country there is a great deal of concern in the major cities about arson and the academy has endeavored to meet the problem through two courses, one on arson detection and the other on arson investigation. Would you have anything in mind at this time on any further activity the academy might take?
A. I would suppose that arson has been one of the neglected crimes in America for a number of reasons. It’s not because fire departments weren’t interested and maybe not because citizens weren’t interested, but I don’t think the police forces in America have had all that much concern for dedicating the money and talents that they have to the suppression of arson. As a result, arson has reached a magnitude in America and it’s become identified to where I think it’s rather obvious we need a team approach—not just the fire fighter and not just the policeman and not just the prosecuting attorney and not just the public, but all of them recognizing and dedicating whatever talent is required to reduce this tremendous cause of fire and life loss in America.
So arson, I think, will get a great deal more attention in the administration that it has had because of an identified need. In fact, in planning the New Orleans conference (next year), arson control is one of the themes being considered. We may make a totally dedicated program on arson that will give the people leaving that meeting a package to take home—a working package which would show them how successful programs are working across America. That answer is yes—a rather elaborate answer to that, yes.
Q. Do you think the fire administration should continue to hold annual conferences or could it accomplish more by offering support to existing fire service conferences?
A. That’s one of the things, of course, that was discussed in my meeting with the joint council. There’s a feeling there that we should not have a conference. Surprisingly, I asked for a survey at the Seattle conference to ask those attending if they would attend future fire administration conferences and should we have a conference in the future. I believe that out of some 183 replies, only three said that we should not hold a conference and 180 said we should. Many of them said it should have precedence over all other conferences. That’s part of the question.
The other part is that you have a new organization struggling to put together its package and it needs some identification. I think part of the thrust of the conferences was toward giving some impetus to that identification. I think the conference can change. At the present time, of course, plans have already been made for the New Orleans conference next year and my guess is that it will probably be held. Exactly in what format or at what cost, I don’t know.
I do want significant input by the fire administration to all other conferences in America to tell our story. I have a serious concern that a lot of hard-working, good-intentioned people in the administration have worked their heart out and their story hasn’t been told. I think at the conference here in Seattle, more questions were provoked by the fire administration’s presentation than by any other single presentation. That means there are a lot of people asking questions about the administration. I intend, if I can, in whatever method is required to get that information out to the fire service o of America.
Q. What steps do you envision taking to make the fire administration data collection branch more accurate and also more useful?
A. Well, I don’t know that they aren’t accurate. There is some contention among many other organizations that gather and use data as to how it should be used and the validity of it. I have a great deal of confidence in the data branch, at least at this point in my early exposure to the competency of the people there. Data from the fire administration is being used by a number of federal agencies. I think that testifies as to its validity. I see a significant expansion of our data ability to better serve not just the fire service and not just the fire administration, but many other segments of government.
Q. Can the fire research office do more to assist the fireground commander in developing strategy?
A. Well, this is another mystery. Research is always a mystery—at least it is to me and, I think, a lot of other people in the fire fighting profession. I’m going to have to have that defined a bit better for me and see a bit more about it before I can comment in a capable manner. This was another subject that was discussed with the joint council and the members feel that we should get the researchers to thinking that it’s not research for pure research and should look at technology. I think they are, but it isn’t being identified as such. Between the National Bureau of Standards and the fire administration and the Department of Defense, you have a significant dollar amount that’s dedicated to research. I would like to have the fire service identify what it wants from research or technology—call it what you will.
Open university concept
Q. You favor the open university concept of presenting the academy program?
A. I’m not familiar enough with their program to even comment on it, frankly.
I admit it’s a question that has been raised, but I just don’t know enough about it.
I don’t know if it is good, bad or indifferent. In this matter of education, you know, you can get almost any answer you want, depending on whom you ask. If you ask Dave Gratz, you get one answer. If you ask Dave McCormack you get another answer and if you ask a fellow at some university in a given state, he’ll have another answer. I intend to ask people who do know.
Q. Is there anything you would like to comment on that I haven’t mentioned?
A. No, I think in summing up that I’m excited and feel that there’s a real challenge that lies ahead for the administration. I admire the people who have been taking their lumps back there for the last four years. I think that the problem we have been talking about here is measurable. I think it is solvable and I think we’ve got the talent, or can get it, to do it and I enter into this very optimistically.
I’ve been out of it now for six years, but I was back—way back—when this whole thing started. I was at the signing when President Johnson signed the original act in March of 1968, as I recall. I was there and of course I’ve been fairly close to the program in the sense that Senator Magnuson and (Howard D.) Tipton and others have talked to me frequently over the years. I think I’m aware of what’s been going on.
I’m optimistic that we can put together an identifiable package that’s going to prove to America that the fire service has had a problem, it still has a problem and the resolution of this problem, as dictated by the act, is going to be accomplished.