“You Want Me to Do What, Chief?”

BY SALVATORE J. SCARPA

Every once in a while, life affords us little bonuses that we can share with others. When I served as a battalion chief in a small urban department in the Midwest, every day was a new experience on the job. That’s one of the things I really love about my work-you just never know what to expect! Now granted, when I was a battalion chief, the department I served in was not an extremely busy department running tens of thousands of calls annually. But with a small residential population and a largely commercial/industrial base, each time the alarm goes off, some new challenge awaits that likely will be different from the last.

Every department in America is just like this-yours and mine. By that, I mean we all respond to a myriad of calls each year. From the mundane to the insane, every alarm brings a different challenge. You may start your day with an emergency medical service (EMS) transfer, have your lunch interrupted by an automobile accident, and spend the evening battling an apartment building fire. The potential array of emergency calls we may encounter demands that we prepare to respond to every conceivable type of “emergency.” Whether in a career, volunteer, or combination department-we’re all responding to a wide variety of calls day in and day out.

NEW CHALLENGES

Every fire department trains in EMS, firefighting, and rescue techniques to better equip members to respond to citizens’ calls for assistance. So how are we preparing ourselves for the next wave of challenges we are beginning to face in the new millennia? What will the calls be like as we progress into an age of decreased fire responses? How do we strategically situate our organizations to best manage the challenges posed by the aging of the largest segment of our population? How do we counter the demand by our stakeholders that our services be realigned to reflect shifts in social and economic priorities? I don’t recall seeing classes for these challenges on the latest brochure from our winter or summer fire school programs. So what are we to do?

Societal changes forcing their hand on the fire service require a new breed of firefighters and officers. Young firefighters preparing to become officers and officers preparing to become chiefs often ask the same question: “How can I prepare for this opportunity?” My response generally begins, “Get back to school and elevate your level of education,” which leads to the inevitable, “You want me to do what, Chief?” That’s right-it’s back-to-school time!

Now, you’ll notice I didn’t necessarily say, “Go and get a college degree,” but “Elevate your level of education.” Many of us came into this service with only a high school education (if that). Although I truly believe that future officers and chiefs in our service should be college educated (with degrees in hand), we’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve got to get our membership back to the classroom to gain a more global perspective and a better understanding of the challenges we’ll face in the future. The changes impacting our service today are not limited to trusses and fuel loads (although they are still incredibly important). The changes are more global. We can get a better feel for those changes when we interact with others outside our normal spheres and learn what changes are impacting them. Perhaps taking the focus off ourselves and looking at our customers is a good starting point.

In a classroom you will have a better opportunity to interact with representative stakeholders who are our customers. We are all familiar with the traditional model of learning in the fire service. We go to fire schools and fire conferences and take classes taught by fire service members. We attend the National Fire Academy, and we read fire service literature. These are all good practices and relevant to our job, but how are you connecting with your community? How do you know what the community wants? Consider that the typical fire department encounters less than 10 percent of its customer base annually. If the only time we interact with them is when they are having a “crisis” of some kind, can you say that you truly know what the community wants from its fire department?

The other reason we need to get back to school is that the challenges we will be expected to overcome are broader than what we are commonly used to. Finances and budgeting are staples of many collegiate programs. They will be ongoing fire service challenges for the foreseeable future. Human relations and interpersonal dynamics are embedded in classroom activities and curriculum. Dealing with people-subordinates/superiors, colleagues, vendors, customers-is a large portion of our daily work. Report writing, political dynamics, negotiation skills, public speaking, program management-can anyone argue that these topics are commonly taught by professionals in the field at colleges and universities across the country and are also common elements of our work?

PARADIGM SHIFT

Getting a college education is important and can certainly do no harm to any firefighter or officer seeking to advance his career. It certainly goes a long way toward changing the view of our service from one of a trade to a true profession. But the next generation of officers and chiefs will also need something else-a paradigm shift. They’ll need it because the way we have been accustomed to doing business is going to change. According to Thomas S. Kuhn, a paradigm shift is “a change from one way of thinking to another. It’s a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It just does not happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change.”1

I believe that there is a pretty good chance our service delivery model will change in the future. The fire service of the future may, for many, look starkly different compared to today’s service. Instead of response-based organizations reacting to citizen emergencies, we’ll see a renewed emphasis on prevention and planning. Couple that with new service models for emergency medicine and a concentrated focus on customer service, and perhaps you can see the future fire service will look rather different.

What will the future fire department offer its citizens in terms of response ability? Increased efficiency in early warning devices and suppression systems will never eliminate the need to have an effective firefighting force (personnel and equipment). But reduced fire calls may be the catalyst for a shift and emphasis on disaster response planning. (Is it me, or does there seem to be a higher incidence of natural disasters lately?) Prevention and education efforts may shift toward community planning for natural and technological disasters. Engaging community and business groups in best practices for disaster planning and postincident precautions might be the next step in the evolution of community education. The advent of the community emergency response team is an indication of our customers’ desire to be engaged. Tomorrow’s firefighters and officers will need to stay ahead of the curve to engage an active community.

With a large segment of the population aging into retirement, calls for EMS service are likely to increase. Yet, the fire service and the hospital community alike realize that some of the needs these folks dial 911 for aren’t necessarily emergencies. They may have a medical or social need, but the emergency room may not be the most appropriate place to fulfill that need. And will they continue to call 911? Well, yes. So what if the shift to meet these needs intersects at the fire station? Is there some hybrid of medical and social services that can be dispensed by firefighters and paramedics? Can fire stations once again become the community centers of our towns, villages, and cities? Sure, there are some challenges with these ideas, but we make a living overcoming obstacles.

It’s hard to say for sure what the fire service of the future will look like. To some degree, there is a moving target of service level expected by the customer and a corresponding level of what the community is willing to pay for. Changes in technology, culture, and social norms will all likely have an impact on what that future looks like. But some things are pretty likely: The fire service will be challenged with new and expanding roles for service as well as increased competition for revenue streams to fulfill these roles. A paradigm shift for our service is critical, in my opinion, to keep pace with the expectations of those we serve.

As part of that paradigm shift, a reemphasis on service for the customer will emerge as a priority for fire departments. My former boss taught me that the communities we serve and the people who depend on us expect three things: prompt, professional, and courteous service. We owe it to those we serve to provide the highest level of customer service available anywhere. They don’t have an option to call another number for the service we provide when they dial 911. They can’t call an adjacent community to provide EMS, fire service, or other public service. How dare we provide anything but the very best customer service possible? Former International Association of Fire Chiefs President (2009-2010) Jeff Johnson said it best: “We need to stop asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ and start asking, ‘What’s in the best interest of our customer?’ “

ON THE STREET

What does all this mean at the street level? How does this apply to the service provider on the engine, the ladder, the rescue, or the ambulance? The significance on the street begins with the very next call you run. Let’s say you’re sent to a residence because of an “activated smoke detector”-at least that’s what you’re initially led to believe based on information provided by dispatch. However, once you arrive, you quickly recognize that all the homeowner needs is a new battery installed in the detector. But since you’re already there with your crew, why not see what other needs you can meet? Do the residents have enough working detectors properly installed in the home? Is carbon monoxide a potential problem? Do they know the signs and symptoms of carbon monoxide exposure? Do you recognize any electrical issues perhaps with overused extension cords? How about general housekeeping or debris issues (e.g., is hoarding a problem here)? Is the fireplace functioning properly (have they been educated about regular cleaning and carbon monoxide hazards)?

These are just fire-related issues. What if you had the education and opportunity to address other issues-social, medical, and financial? What would you (or could you) do if you learned the residents didn’t replace the battery because they couldn’t afford it? Suppose they couldn’t afford their medications or the electric or gas bill? What if you found evidence of water damage because they were unable to clean out their gutters on their home and water got into the attic? What would you do about several malnourished animals in the home and a nearly empty refrigerator? These are all issues that are normally beyond the scope of the engine company to manage. But as public servants, we feel compelled to act on behalf of those in need. This is what makes our service a calling. These are all issues that certainly need to be addressed but do not fall into the realm of the role firefighters traditionally provide.

In our community, we faced similar challenges with some of our residential calls. We would respond for one “emergency” but would occasionally find circumstances beyond the capabilities of the crews to address; yet, they still required some attention. Today we partner with a regional entity tied to the United Way that has the resources to facilitate action on items not currently within the purview of emergency services. If firefighters recognize a need in a home, they can make a referral for service (with the customer’s consent) that will ensure appropriate services are afforded the resident at no or low cost. The idea is to match the need to the entity most appropriate to fill it. We’re excited about this community assistance program that has proven so successful in surrounding jurisdictions. Our role in this endeavor thus far is recognition and providing a gateway for our residents to receive the help they need. We are now stepping outside our normal boundaries but meeting needs in our community.

At the street level, the fire service needs to engage our business and industrial community as well. Imagine if you had a task force created to identify how to best serve its needs. You could staff it with representation from your agency (not just chief officers) as well as business and industrial leaders, and even council or board members. You may find that what they want in addition to the prompt, professional, and courteous response is better education on emergency planning or explanations of Tier II reporting or strategy and planning sessions on minimizing business interruption following an incident. Where does the fire department fit in here? What resources do you bring to the table to meet the needs of this portion of your customer base?

Our retail, commercial, and industrial community partners are every bit as vital to our cities as our citizens. These businesses generate revenue for our community, provide jobs for our citizenry, and define what makes our particular communities attractive for potential business and residential prospects. Identifying their unique needs and figuring out what gaps your department can fill for them will be critical to forging relationships that foster public-private partnerships (which will become more prevalent in the future). Meeting the needs of this segment of our community will likely be different in that a single visit to their facility will not address all their issues. You may have to make multiple trips to truly understand their needs. But you’re likely to find that developing those relationships will also pay off for your personnel on the street at emergency scenes.

This level of engagement is certainly not novel but may be new in some communities. As an organization, you may have to reevaluate the deployment model of your personnel to see if it best meets the needs of your stakeholders. You may have to develop training, standards, service models, and standard operating guidelines that reflect what you want your mission to be. You will likely experience a culture shift as your organization transitions to a more proactive community partner. How you educate your members will be perceived as a cultural shift in the organization. How you educate your community will become a function of marketing. Both of these transitions will create impacts on your department that you must both anticipate and prepare for.

Let’s face it, even though our service is changing, it’s still really great work. We come to work each day to face new challenges and figure out new ways to help people. There’s something about that opportunity to be there for someone else, sometimes at their most vulnerable moment, to be able to make a positive impact that makes the fire service a most rewarding career.

And every once in a while, we have those little bonuses that make all the heartache that goes along with those challenges somehow worthwhile. Oh yeah, back to my moment. I received a call one day from an elderly woman with a “giant spider” in her house. She had no family close by and was incredibly afraid of spiders. So I summoned a crew to my office and gave them their assignment to capture or kill the spider. As you might expect, one of the firefighters responded, “You want me to do what, Chief?” I took a moment to explain the predicament of the elderly woman to this young firefighter and told him how she had called the police department, public works, and animal control before the call was forwarded to me. Who else was she going to call? I asked him finally how would he feel if that was his grandmother calling. Seemingly satisfied with my response, the crew went off and accomplished their mission. I was glad they took on this task and was really pleased that they didn’t gripe any more about it. Of course, the fact that the spider had been strategically placed in my station shower that night might have had something to do with it; but, every once in a while, life affords us all little bonuses we can share with others!

REFERENCE

1. Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Second edition, enlarged. The University of Chicago Press Chicago, 1970.

Instead of response-based organizations reacting to citizen emergencies, we’ll see a renewed emphasis on prevention and planning.

SALVATORE J. SCARPA is the deputy chief for the Shawnee (KS) Fire Department. He has served more than 23 years in the fire service in career and volunteer fire departments. He is a national presenter on emerging issues in fire service leadership.

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