BY JENNIFER CORNELL
At no other time has the fire service had a greater need for literacy. All signs indicate a future in which reading and writing skills for firefighters will be essential to the survival of the fire service. The federal government is increasingly using grants to fund state and local governments. In turn, many state governments are using grants to local agencies as the means to distribute much-sought-after tax revenue. Although the most well-known example of this trend in the fire service is the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program (the FIRE Act), other federal bills that require grant writing include the recent Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Act, which paid for firefighter salaries, and the Homeland Security Act, which has provided funding for terrorism training.
A host of other federal and state legislation requires local fire departments justify their need for funds in writing-a growing trend that is part of a general movement to hold government more accountable for expenditures. It is popular with lawmakers because the spending is easier to justify and the burden is placed on the agency seeking funding. Essentially, agencies are being asked to sing for their supper and, not surprisingly, the better singers are getting the steak.
As a whole, the fire service is not well-prepared for this new challenge. Very few departments, particularly those in large urban centers that face declining tax revenues, have made reading and writing required skills for incoming firefighters. Furthermore, the fast-changing realities of terrorism, hazardous materials, and modern firefighting equipment have added overwhelming training burdens, to the detriment of enhancing basic reading and writing skills. Finally, firefighters themselves have historically been reluctant to embrace education, preferring instead to depend heavily on seniority for career advancement.
What does this mean for an occupation that has typically described its primary function as “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff”? We as firefighters and departments need to increase the general literacy of our departments and ourselves. It is clearly up to each individual to pursue education and increase his personal literacy.
Below are some steps a fire department can take to increase the literacy of its staff and thereby ensure the department’s survival in the ever-changing game of public service.
• Writing course reimbursement. Although many departments offer some sort of tuition reimbursement for firefighting courses, for budgetary reasons, ironically, such organizations shy away from paying for other courses believed to be unrelated to firefighting. It is time we saw any course work that develops our members’ writing skills as “job-related.” Another option is to offer report writing courses for all officers and firefighters interested in promotion. These can be built into regular officer training and offered based on your department’s work schedule. The National Fire Academy also offers written communications classes.
• Promote good writers. Although the line firefighter need not be a budding Charles Dickens, your upper staff certainly should be able to communicate in writing. Promotional exams should include a writing component that becomes increasingly more challenging the higher the rank sought. For lieutenants and captains, you may focus more on report writing and lower-level investigative writing; for higher ranks, your staff should have to prove its ability to write at higher and higher levels. Many departments use an “in-basket” exercise as part of the promotional process. By including writing components in the in-basket exercise, you can identify the better writers in your candidate pool. At lower levels, this can help you improve the quality of your officers’ run reports; at higher levels, you can determine the best writers for making your grant applications.
• Mentor your people to learn to write. Every department has upper management or even lower-level officers with fabulous writing skills. Search within your department for people with good written language skills, and mentor them to be officers. Pair your chief officers who are good writers with up-and-coming officers to teach writing skills early on. Don’t wait for members’ first day as a chief officer to teach them the writing skills they need. Start early and often, and you will have more skilled chief officers to promote.
• Create internal writing opportunities. Often, when writing is needed in any given department, the same people perform the task. This is sometimes necessary, since you want your standard operating procedures, letters to the mayor, and other important pieces of writing to be as professional as possible. However, creating internal opportunities for firefighters to write, such as department newsletters, union newspapers, and training documents, will go a long way to provide them incentive to do so. Don’t just go to the person you know can write for these assignments. If your department does not produce a newsletter now, then start. These publications can benefit your department by keeping members abreast of changes in policy and issues facing your members; they are also a great source of information at budget time and when writing grants.
• Encourage your staff to publish in fire service journals. Although internal documents are a great opportunity for firefighters to test their writing skills, when it comes to applying for federal grants, your members will be competing with writers from departments around the country. Many states have fire and public safety publications that are always looking for good articles to publish; this provides your staff with a larger pool of competition in which to hone their writing skills. If you have firefighters who can write well enough, encourage them to publish in the larger fire service journals. Not only does it look good for the individual and give that writer an opportunity to practice writing skills, it also puts your department in the news.
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These are just a few ideas to jump-start your thinking about how to develop your firefighters’ writing skills. Each department may have different tactics that work better for its demographics. However, we all urgently need to recognize the landscape for what it is. In firefighting terms, let’s read what the smoke is telling us at the fire. Funding through grants is not the white wispy smoke of an incipient fire that is easy to put out; it is the dark pulsating smoke of flashover conditions. We can call more resources to the scene to better protect ourselves or misread the scene and face dire consequences. ■
■ JENNIFER CORNELL is a captain with the Minneapolis (MN) Fire Department, where she has served since 1994. She has taught two rookie schools for her department and has been an instructor in the fire science degree program at Hennepin Technical College since 1999. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree from the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She is a founder and secretary of the Minnesota Women Fire Fighter’s Association.