Irrational Public Policy Is Bad for Public Safety

Public policy development is often complex, but the process should result in decisions that are in the best interest of the public. This is especially true with public policy decisions that have a direct impact on public safety.

Although not necessarily intentional, local public officials have at times developed public policy that may have resulted in a diminished level of fire safety. In fact, the current economic environment has in some cases circumvented normal decision-making processes and turned important public safety decisions into nothing more than a budget exercise. It is difficult enough to work through resource-use decisions relating to where a fire department puts its emphasis — fire prevention, public education or emergency response. However, it is irresponsible for those involved in developing public policy to say that these three critical areas of service delivery can be significantly diminished without negatively impacting the level of public safety. That is simply not the case.

The fire service in general has often found it difficult to define fire and life safety service delivery and support as a system of component parts that together work to make communities safer. In all fire departments, line service delivery to the public should revolve around prevention, public education and emergency response. Yet many fire departments have failed to find a realistic balance concerning where resources should be assigned in order to fulfill their mission. This has created confusion on the part of some public officials who make resource allocation decisions.

Fire service leaders may say that the best fire is the one that never happened because it was prevented in some way and that we should make every effort to ensure that fire prevention and public education services are at the forefront of our service delivery system. However, when tasks are assigned and human and physical resources allocated within the fire department, most go to emergency services with little dedicated to prevention and public education. This dilemma should never have evolved into an either/or decision, but should have instead provided the opportunity for fire department leaders to clearly explain the critical role of each of these areas in the fire and life safety system, then assign tasks and allocate fire department resources accordingly.

Now, the problem has become compounded, resulting in some irrational public safety decisions. Either/or has become neither as the economic crisis has caused significant reductions in staffing, the closing of fire stations and/or browning-out fire companies. In addition, fire prevention and public education staffing have been decimated in many departments. One can't deny the financial situation most government entities are trying to function in, but when applying something besides the budget to the issue, better public policy can result. One excellent example of this relates to requirements for automatic fire sprinkler systems in homes.

The fire service should be proud of the progress made over the past 25 years in requiring residential fire sprinklers. The Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition has done a tremendous amount of work educating consumers, builders, the fire service, real estate and insurance agents, and local officials about the life safety advantages of home sprinklers. Its approach has been one of education, providing information and coalition-building. Through its work, it has been able to dispel many of the myths that opponents of residential fire sprinklers have spread. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Home Safety Council (HSC) and other organizations have been front and center in these efforts.

When the International Code Council (ICC) publishes the 2012 International Residential Code, it will include a requirement for fire sprinklers in new homes. If there aren't sufficient funds for the fire department to provide fire prevention and public education services, and if neighborhoods are left without adequate emergency response services, then rational public policy would be to require more effective built-in protection to maintain at least some level of fire safety.

This will not replace the need for prevention, public education and emergency response. But, the rational decision is to follow the lead of the ICC, especially in these economic times, and the fire service should lead the way in helping local officials arrive at that decision.

DENNIS COMPTON, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a well-known speaker and the author of several books, including his newest offering titled Progressive Leadership Principles, Concepts and Tools. He has also authored the three-part series of books titled When in Doubt, Lead, the book Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers, as well as many articles, chapters and other publications. Compton was the fire chief in Mesa, AZ, for five years and as assistant fire chief in Phoenix, AZ, where he served for 27 years. Compton is the past chair of the Executive Board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and past chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee. He is also chairman of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation Board of Directors and the chairman of the Home Safety Council Board of Directors.