In Search Of...

Full Size Editorial Cartoon

With the new president taking command this January, two well-accomplished fire service leaders, David Paulison, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director, and Greg Cade the United States Fire Administration (USFA) Administrator, came to the end of their careers at their respected posts.

And now, Janet Napolitano, the new Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), must find new leaders to fill the void and to provide for the continuity of the great work that David and Greg initiated.

Regardless of the routine partisan politics, history has shown that appointment of less than qualified individuals, without strong emergency management and fire service experience to lead these organizations, have not boded well; both for these organizations, and most importantly for the public they are tasked to protect.

It might be wishful thinking, but I hope that party politics can take the back seat to the individuals' qualifications for serving at the helm of these organizations. Strength of leadership, knowledge, skills, proven track record at the national level, and extensive hands-on fire service and emergency management experience must be the most important qualifications criteria for these two positions.

I believe that it is important for the Director of the FEMA to have extensive emergency management skills and have direct experience in responding to major disasters. They also must have good working knowledge of the history and inter-working of the organization that he/she will be tasked to lead.

Just as I finished writing the first draft of this article, President Obama announced his intent to nominate the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, Craig Fugate to be his FEMA Administrator. And, I was delighted to read that our President also recognizes the importance of having fire service and emergency management experience for that position.

On the nomination of Craig Fugate, President Obama said: "From his experience as a first responder to his strong leadership as Florida's Emergency Manager, Craig has what it takes to help us improve our preparedness, response and recovery efforts and I can think of no one better to lead FEMA. I'm confident that Craig is the right person for the job and will ensure that the failures of the past are never repeated".

By the same token, I believe that the next USFA Administrator must not only have strong fire service leadership skills and experience, but even more importantly, he/she must be fully aware of the organizational history, founding principles and core values, and the mission and the important role of the USFA in leading our country's fire service.

I truly agree with the USFA's claim that they are "America's fire and emergency services leaders". That indeed is their role, and the precise reason for their organizational existence.

USFA was established only 35 years ago, as a direct result of the famous 1973 American Burning report, that led to the passage of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498, on October 29, 1974.

In the 1973, America Burning report it is stated "There needs to be more emphasis on fire prevention. Fire departments, many of which confine their roles to putting out fires and rescuing its victims, need to expend more efforts to educate children on fire safety, to educate adults through residential inspections, to enforce fire prevention codes, and to see that fire safety is designed into buildings". Also stated in the 1973 report was "The commission recommends that local governments make fire prevention at least equal to suppression in the planning of fire department priorities".

The 1987, America Burning Revisited report stated "The National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control noted that fire prevention was the key to effective and efficient fire protection services". And the 2000, America Burning Recommissioned stated "ways to reduce fire losses and deaths are neither unknown nor arcane. The primary way and the goal of any effort in this area must be to prevent fires in the first place".

Looking at the fire loss statistics of the decades past, it is quite clear that we in the fire service have come a long way in addressing the fire problem in our country. Thanks in large to our national fire prevention efforts, and specially the development of the smoke alarms technology, and their installation in 96% of the American homes during the past couple of decades; there has been a great measure of success in reducing the national fire fatalities.

Such significant statistical reductions show that our focus on fire prevention, even though still less that adequate, has made a tremendous impact. We should take pride in our accomplishments. Yet to be able to provide our public with a higher level of protection, we must further build upon our successes and have much higher priority and more emphasis on our fire prevention responsibilities.

With all that said, it is only logical to expect that the next USFA Administrator to have a deep understanding of the organizational mission of the USFA, and to have a proven track record of commitment and higher priority for fire prevention in addressing our country's fire problem. After all, that was, and still is the fundamental reason for the USFA's organizational existence.

Strongly believing in this concept, about a year ago, long before the Presidential election; a few prominent fire service friends of mine, worked on drafting a "resolution" for the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) to encourage our country's next President, to focus strongly on the qualifications of his candidates for the next USFA Administrator position.

Obviously, we did not have any particular candidate in mind, and this wasn't an endorsement of sort by any means. The intent of the draft "resolution" was merely to underline the importance of having a much higher priority on fire prevention in addressing our national fire problem.

It is also important to clarify that our intent for focusing on fire prevention, was not at all to deemphasize the importance of fire suppression, emergency medical services, hazmat, or any/all of our other fire service responsibilities.

Our intent was to reiterate the findings of the 1973 America Burning report in emphasizing the importance of being proactive and taking the preventive approaches in addressing our country's fire problem, rather than merely reacting to it.

The "resolution" attached below, was originally drafted last July, to be presented to the National Advisory Committee (NAC) of the CFSI.

"Whereas, the citizens of the United States more than the citizens of most other industrialized nations continue to experience unacceptable levels of both social and economic cost due to fire response, injuries and deaths of both civilians and firefighters, and property loss each year as has been confirmed again and again from all data sources that in spite of significant gains made in the last 30 years, a plateau has been reached where further losses are unlikely without a significant, sustained, comprehensive, measured and evaluated system of interrelated efforts of education, engineering and enforcement initiatives, and

Whereas, the occupant of the position of United States Fire Administrator needs to be an individual who can and who by law has traditionally been expected to exercise bold and decisive leadership to bring together all interested parties, both public and private, in a united program of commitment, passion and drive toward the intended goals as originally identified in Public Law 93-498, "The Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974," and

Whereas, the nationally-representative members who authored, "America Burning: The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control," in 1973, envisioned a fire-safe America required that all aspects of fire prevention be championed as the most likely way to dramatically reduce the nation's deplorable losses from fire, and

Whereas, more than a dozen major national studies since have consistently come to the same conclusion, namely that the vast majority of continuing unacceptable fire losses can be prevented via the exercise of strong inclusive leadership to assert comprehensive implementation of proven successful strategies from both this and from other countries, and

Whereas, the Congressionally-intended role of the United States Fire Administrator, as identified nearly 35 years ago in the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Action of 1974," a bi-partisan effort following release of the 1973 landmark document, "America Burning: The Report of the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control," and which had it's impetus in the "Federal Fire Research and Safety Act of 1968," collectively recognized the importance of prevention, and

Whereas, it is acknowledged that all aspects of the U.S. Fire Administration are important, including programs dealing with firefighter safety, national fire data, operational efficiency, and training for suppression, there has not been adequate attention to the most effective and productive approach to reducing civilian and firefighter injures and deaths, that being prevention as has been proven in many nations and some U.S. cities, which has also repeatedly been acknowledged by leading authorities for decades now.

Whereas, in recognition of the many outstanding USFA accomplishments in these past 3 1/2 decades to include the important ongoing work of men and women all across the nation and in communities large and small still need and want an Administrator at the helm who shows public commitment to recently articulated ideals of the "Vision 20/20: National Strategies for Fire Loss Prevention" initiative, and

Whereas, in concert with the Congress that as President you will commit to insure that the United States Fire Administrator agrees, prior to the commencement of his/her appointment process, to champion prevention as the major means to reduce the magnitude of the nation's fire problem in concert with governmental agencies and private sector advocates who individually and collectively are positioned to help the United States Fire Administrator solve America's Fire Problem,

Whereas, the member organizations of the CFSI National Advisory Committee by unanimous action desire to assist the next President of the United States to select an individual of proven comprehensive leadership in the field of fire prevention, and

Whereas, the National Advisory Committee of the Congressional Fire Services Institute is united in respectively requesting the next President - by way of selection of a U.S. Fire Administrator - will do all possible to publicly commit to help prevent the tragic losses of life and property as unacceptable assaults on the nation's families, businesses, governments and America's economical viability and indeed the American way of life, does agree to appoint a person to the position of United States Fire Administrator who possesses obvious knowledge, skills and abilities to lead the nation's programs of fire loss prevention.

Therefore now be it resolved, the member organizations of the Congressional Fire Services Institute commits themselves to assist the next U.S. Fire Administrator and to support the President in fulfilling both the intent and continuing need for Prevention to be the focus of the U.S. Fire Administrator's efforts and the U.S. Fire Administration's highest priority.

For the reasons beyond my level of comprehension, this draft of the "resolution" was not embraced with warmth, and was brushed aside at the very inception, thus never saw the daylight.

Considering the strength of the logic and the validity of the reasons presented in that "resolution"; I thought that it would only be prudent to revive it in an article titled "In Search Of".

After all, by only a little editorial modification to the original draft of the "resolution", and merely changing the words "the next President", to "President Obama", we still have a pretty solid document, don't we? Then the "resolution" should still be of value for the selection of the next USFA Administrator.

In all my previous articles I have always emphasized on the important role of the USFA as the lead national fire service organization. And I have always referred to the USFA Administrator as our Incident Commander (IC). In my mind, the next USFA Administrator must have such high qualifications to serve as our IC.

The next USFA Administrator must be an accomplished fire service leader that is well-versed in the fundamental principles of the organization that he/she will lead, and must have demonstrated deep commitment to the core founding values and missions of the USFA, as was originally outlined in Public Law 93-498, "The Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974".

Let me be quite clear that in my mind, having extensive fire service leadership experience is an important prerequisite for the selection of the next USFA Administrator. But not the only criteria; and certainly not the most important one. I believe that having five bugles on the collar is very important, but not as important as having a proven track record of strong commitment to the founding principles of the USFA.

After all, just look around, and you could easily see that even at this day and age, there are still very many fire chiefs with archaic views, which only attests to the validity of this 1973 America Burning report statement that "Our approaches to the fire problem are not adequate to meet the needs of today. They suffer what the anthropologists call "cultural lag"; our methods of handling the fire problem are attuned to the America of yesteryear - not to contemporary needs, much less to future needs".

The method and technology to address our fire problem is not an unknown commodity. Ben Franklin stated "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". The same holds true today. The challenge for the fire service is not in what to do, but changing our culture to embrace what needs to be done. This starts at the top with the nation's fire chief.

The USFA must position itself to be the driver of this "cultural revolution" in the fire service and in our nation. Until we change our acceptance of fire in this country, provide a strong emphasis focus on prevention and not just reaction, we will continue to discuss the problem, and not solve it.

The next USFA administrator must create the dynamic by which the USFA can reengineer for the future, to create engagement from all of the national stakeholders, but as importantly, develop commitment at the citizen and firefighter level to address this problem.

Our fire problem is not a technological issue, and in most cases, an inability to respond issue. It is an issue of culture. Until we have the leadership that understands that, and can provide the leadership to begin to change our cultural acceptance of our fire problem, then we will continue to reference all the studies that tell us what we should have done.

In his excellent article titled "Warning Labels", my friend Robert Rielage quoted from the speech that the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates made to the students of the Air War College. "In it, the Secretary called for a different type of military officer. "The Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders who want to do something, not be somebody," Gates said."

It would be naive of me to believe that other significant factors such as political affiliations, high connections, interest groups' influences, etc., do not have a major impact on the federal appointments at such high levels. Yet, I only hope that Secretary Napolitano would select a qualified leader that "want to do something, not be somebody" to serve as the next USFA Administrator. A leader that could step up to the plate; and serve our nation, by being proactive in addressing the fire problem. Our public that we are sworn to protect, deserves such leadership.

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AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at amirkhah@lasvegasnevada.gov.

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