WHAT BUSINESS IS YOUR FIRE DEPARTMENT IN?

BY JAMES M. FOLEY

As I have progressed through my years as a firefighter, I have realized that firefighters from all over the country are singing the same songs. We all complain about staffing, training, budget shortfalls, inadequate equipment, and the fundamental misunderstanding of politicians regarding what the fire service provides to the community. Only the names of the municipalities change to protect the innocent. For most of us, the stories are the same.

As you ponder the question of why the fire service hasn’t achieved the same status as law enforcement, consider our traditions and our inability to clearly define our status in emergency response. Fire departments define themselves in terms of dedication, integrity, service, and bravery, but we fail to transmit these core values through our members to our customers.

If you ask the public what profession they hold in the highest esteem, firefighters are at the top of the list. But if you ask them what services need greater support in their community, they most likely would identify the police or the schools. Like the navy’s submarine service, the fire service could be best described as “the silent service.”

Before we blame the system, the politicians, or the chief for our woes, we need to take a good long look in the mirror to see how we contribute to the problem. When we look at business, we see that success is dependent on strong core values, a commitment to excellence, quality of product, customer service, marketing, and good value for the money spent. Think about it: You wouldn’t go out to buy the most overpriced, poorly constructed car on the market, would you? Then why would we expect the fire service to get what it needs when we haven’t performed the market research or defined the service and quality of product we provide?

We often speak about mission statements and the changing face of the fire service. Today, with the threat of terrorism, we are expected to perform our jobs in hazardous unknown environments to rescue people from the effects of radiological dispersion devices or chemical nerve agents. We are expected to do this without additional resources or a cohesive national policy and with no additional funding or staffing. The public expects this because the fire service has never contradicted it.

Our mantra of “adapt and overcome” allows the mission to creep with no consideration for the reality entailed in delivering the end product. We willingly allow the media and government to lead us down this road for fear that the mission may be passed on to other agencies-that is, we stay on the defensive instead of going on the offensive like our brothers in law enforcement, a fundamental flaw in our service. Politicians know fires will still be extinguished regardless of how many firefighters are on a rig. We have taught them this. I often tell firefighters that if they are handed a box, a ball of string, and a pencil, somehow they will figure out how to put out a fire with it, and when they figure it out, I’ll take away the pencil.

How do we begin to fix these issues? The fire service naturally tends to go right to the politicians-they’ll fix it, right? Wrong! Politicians, with few exceptions, for the most part will take up our cause, give us some lip service, and throw in a bill that they really know will go nowhere. But hey! they gave it the old college try. Most politicians think only in self-serving terms to get your vote for the next election; then they can forget you for another four years.

Our congressmen and senators will praise our bravery while at the same time taking resources away from the fire service. Don’t believe me? Look at the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). Every senator and congressman in Washington is supposedly onboard with the CFSI, yet the FIRE Act is being cut and the SAFER Act is not funded. Still, the fire service is expected to handle everything from chemical attack to a nuclear detonation while the money and resources to do so are being siphoned away.

At the CFSI this year, we were promised $5 billion in grants for the fire service, which is approximately $417 per firefighter per year. Although in the fire service this number may sound large, in Washington it’s a drop in a very big bucket. For example, a B-52 bomber cost $30 million dollars in 1963, a KC-10 air tanker costs $86.3 million per unit, an M-1A Abrams tank (of which we have more than 8,867) costs $507,000, a Bradley fighting vehicle uses more than $230 million annually in replacement tracks, and each unit costs $3.2 million to produce.

Don’t misunderstand me; we need these weapon systems and a strong military to defend our country, just as we need a strong fire service to protect our homeland. However, in defending our homeland, we are not considered as vital as the military. On the federal funding radar screen, the fire service is not that visible. We can’t even get the Federal Communications Commission to designate proper bandwidths for emergency responder communications. By the way, we still haven’t fixed the communications issues identified on September 11, either.

So what should we as fire service members do? To attack the problem, we need to define our mission at the grassroots level in our jurisdictions, do the market research in our communities, and clearly define the public expectations of our service. More importantly, we need to ask our customers how we are doing and what we can do better. This must be an external and internal analysis; above all, it must be honest. We need to define our business and tell the public how our service will meet their needs. We must obtain the support of the community to overcome the political stagnation at all levels of government. We need to go on the offensive internally and externally. The fire service doesn’t just demonstrate integrity, service, dedication, and commitment-we live it!

Our leaders need to refocus on the missions defined by the community, and we must defeat the internal naysayers. We must provide excellent customer service and deliver a quality product every time. Our leaders must lead with integrity, honesty, and professionalism to convey the importance of the service. We need to champion excellence in our organizations and ourselves.

At the state and federal levels, we must be better united and organized, not divided into career and volunteer, union and nonunion firefighters. A national fire service agenda and priority list based on common problems at the local level should be established. This agenda should include the short list of national priorities that can reasonably be accomplished in a year and will benefit all firefighters. Our voice should be aggressive, united, and strong.

We have all heard of the “Million Man March” and the “Million Mother March.” How about the “Million Firefighter March”? A gimmick, perhaps, but it sure would send a message about the fire service and the short end of the stick we are always poised on.

To all of you who desire positive change in the fire service, don’t look to others to start the ball rolling-look in the mirror. In my 33 years in the fire service, I know that any fire can start small but can become a great conflagration. Each firefighter needs to fan the flames of positive customer service so that our message spreads town by town, state by state, and firefighter by firefighter until the fire service garners the attention and support it needs to fulfill the mission. Every one of us must market the mission of the fire service. Most importantly, each of us needs to keep reaching out and communicating with our customers if we are to overcome the political stagnation that keeps us on the backstep.

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