The Missing Links

Cut out the middleman. When shopping, never mind the retailers and their added-on profit margins. Just go straight to the wholesalers and you can save more. Each layer of management just adds more bureaucracy, and skims off their presumed share of the resources before passing it down. So then, eliminate the unnecessary middle management, and not only do you save time and avoid the bureaucratic aggravation but most importantly, you can plug up a drain that unnecessarily depletes the scarce resources.

These sound like great ideas if you want to stretch your dollar and maximize your buying power or enhance the organizational efficiency, don't they? Just like everything else in life, there are pros and cons associated with any approach that we take.

For example, bypassing the middleman doesn't sound too logical in the incident command system (ICS), does it? Never mind all those sections, branches, divisions, groups, strike teams and the task forces drawn up on the board, just go straight to the units.

That simply is unacceptable in our fireground operations, and such actions would not be tolerated and is considered freelancing, right? Then why should we look at it any other way, when it comes to addressing the fire problem in our country? The bigger the problem, the more important is the application of the ICS. And, believe me, the magnitude of the fire problem in our country demands that we apply a well-structured, organized, and systematic approach in addressing it.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) fire loss reports and statistics reveal the true magnitude of the fire problem in our country. NFPA "Fires in the United States During 2007" indicates that there were 1,557,500 fires. Their report titled "U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2007" states that there an estimated 30,185 fire departments in our country that are tasked with protecting our population and responding to those fires.

And their most recent report about the annual cost of fire titled "The Total Cost of Fire in the United States" published February 2008, 2005, indicates that "for 2005, that total cost is estimated at $267-294 billion, or roughly 2 to 2.5% of U.S. gross domestic product." These 2005 statistic are NFPA's most recent figures, and undoubtedly their future reports will depict a higher number for the more recent years.

Based on our annual fire loss statistics, it should be evident that not having a well structured organizational mechanism and solid game plan to address the national fire problem means that each of us are just doing our own little thing in our own backyards, which is nothing short of freelancing in my mind.

It is not about the level of love, commitment and dedicated efforts, you know. After all, don't freelancers put their whole heart and might into their efforts and respond to fires with high determination and filled with commitment? Sure they do. They are just trying to do their best. But then from our organizational perspective would that be considered an acceptable practice? No.

The good news is that we are no stranger to the concept of national disasters, especially in the recent years. And as a result we have better organized ourselves, and have more cooperation at the various levels of government, which has enabled us to have a much faster and well-coordinated response to such emergencies.

Back in 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that resulted in 1,836 deaths and $81.2 billion damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was restructured to better prepare it for the future disasters. As a direct result of the high quality of leadership at the top, the organizational strength and inter-agency cooperation at all levels of government, FEMA is now much better prepared. And their great job in responding to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike last year attest to their improvements.

Interestingly enough though, year after year in America, our national fire fatalities are more than twice the number of Katrina's fatalities and the total national cost of fire is more than three times that of Katrina's damage! The question that begs to be answered then is why can't we apply the same excellent organizational principles and frameworks that worked successfully in the emergency management side of the house in the FEMA, to work for the other side of the house at the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) to address the fire problem in our country? Why not?

Maybe, it is because the leaders at the helm of the fire service simply don't see the true magnitude of the fire problem in our country. Maybe they perceive it as non-emergency, thus it lacks the urgency to demand an immediate action, or even any action at all.

There is yet another very important reason for this inaction. I believe that there are many among us that truly believe that fire is merely a local problem, and not a national problem. They say that based on our Constitution, it is the responsibility of the locals to address their own fire problems in their own localities and not the federal government's. With that perspective then, it is not hard to predict that we will keep on staring at the trees for a few more decades without actually seeing the forest.

We have taken great strides in overcoming that mentality and the organizational obstacles in our emergency management side. And we urgently need to do the same for the fire side. If we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem in our country, then it is absolutely critical to address this dichotomy of national versus local responsibility, and bridge the gap.

After all my friends, $294 billion a year is no chump change either. And in these tough economic times it is hard for me to justify fire consuming 2.5 percent of our country's annual gross domestic product, can you?

A good friend reminded me that knowledge of the past breeds an appreciation for the future. Yet the trick is to keep a balance between what mattered in the past and today's realities. I believe that it is important to establish some logical frameworks and give a historical perspective to explain some of the reasons for the absence of a well-coordinated, cohesive, and cooperative intergovernmental relationship in the fire service.

With that in mind, the intent of this article is not to dig too deep or go too far back in history, but to look for the roots of our current problems, and find pearls of wisdom that have direct relevance and with minor modifications, could still be of value and assist us in addressing the challenges facing us today. I believe by doing so, we could have an opportunity to learn from the past, with the hope that we can do better in the future.

Local or National?
Is fire a local problem or a national problem? Under the category of the "Reserved Powers," states are responsible for providing functions such as police and fire protection, education, licensing and establishment of health regulations. But, since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, federalism and the roles and responsibilities of the states and the national government has been constantly evolving. Back in the early years of the 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson noted that:

"The question of the relation of the States to the federal government is the cardinal question of our constitutional system. At every turn of our national development, we have been brought face to face with it, and no definition either of statesmen or of judges has ever quieted or decided it."

My intent is not to focus on the evolution of federalism during the past 220 years from the dual federalism to the cooperative federalism to the creative federalism, and now to the contemporary federalism. But to say that there is no right or wrong; and again quite logically, the answer evolves with time.

It is evident that there is a continuing shift in the role of the national government through the intergovernmental grants system. The fact that our federal government through their grant programs is directly involved to a varying degree with the states on many issues such as the education, police, public works, flood control environment shows that there is no clear line in the sand that can not be crossed when it comes to the cooperation between the different levels of government.

After all, if police, education, environmental, healthcare, and other interests can build a bridge and cross the gap between the federal and local authorities to provide better service for our people, then why can't we?

We must not use the concepts of federalism as a cloak for our inaction to address the national fire problem. We can't just say that fire is a local issue, and simply wash our hands of it and sit aside idle.

Occurrence of more than 1.5 million fires a year around the country is proof for the fact that indeed fires do occur locally, and that we do respond to them locally. But then the $294 billion national annual economic impact of fire on our country is quite significant; and addressing it demands systematic levels of coordination and cooperation on all levels of government.

Remember the famous beer commercial that said less filling no it tastes great? Same is the case with us. I believe that the answer to the fire problem in our country is that, it is both the responsibility of the locals, and the federal government to work cooperatively to better protect our citizens.

The Original Game Plan
I must admit upfront that not a single concept presented in this article is either new, original, or even mine. I am proud to say that the concepts presented in this article were originally discussed and developed by much brighter individuals and proposed by the most powerful leaders in our country. I am only humbly presenting them for your review. I am confident that you will find the principles solid, and the recommendations still applicable to a great degree even at this day and age.

Mindlessly copying the recommendations of the past, and suggesting their immediate implementation without any consideration at all for our evolution is quite illogical to say the least. My intent was that we could analyze, discuss, and hopefully learn from these great documents of the yesteryears, so that we can modify and adapt it to our present situation to enhance our future performance.

One can't get any higher than the President of the United States. President Harry S. Truman, in his keynote address at the 1947 President's Conference on Fire Prevention, depicted the true magnitude of the fire problem in our country. He underlined the importance of coordination of efforts at the various levels of government to address the national fire problem and stated:

"It is the clear responsibility of every State and local official, and every citizen, to aggressively support this national war against the growing menace of fire." I believe that the highest State and municipal officials must assume greater responsibility for leadership in this field. We in the Federal government can give aid within the framework of existing agencies. But the impetus must come from the States and from every community and every individual in the land."

A quarter of a century later, the same concepts were also discussed by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control in their famous 1973 American Burning report that led to the establishment of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the passage of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-498), on October 29, 1974. The Commission believed that:

"We felt strongly that fire prevention and control should remain primarily local responsibilities....The Federal Government must at some cost help the Nation attack the fire problem if any significant reduction in fire losses is to be achieved."

In the 1973 America Burning report, the Commission was tasked to identify "how should responsibilities for reducing fire losses be distributed among Federal, State and local governments?" They discussed the concept of the "Fire loss Management Plan" as an answer to our country's fire problem.

"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... One of the jobs of the U.S. Fire Administration will be to persuade local governments that the rewards lie in a change toward fire loss management, penalties in the status quo... The Commission recommends that the proposed United States Fire Administration provide grants to local fire jurisdictions for developing master plans for fire protection. Further, the proposed U.S. Fire Administration should provide technical advice and qualified personnel to local fire jurisdictions to help them develop master plans."

The fire service have acknowledged the monumental impact of the report. Yet, we still have not accomplished the intended mission of the USFA as it was outlined by the Commission and then later on signed into law in the form of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-498). Why not? I know that we have come a long way but 36 years later, we still have not implemented most of the 1973 America Burning recommendations including the Fire Loss Management Plan.

The fundamental principle of the document was that we must have a much higher priority for our fire prevention duties. Yet, we have strayed so far away from those core recommendations, and have persistently maintained our sole focus on our fire suppression.

And the normalization of deviance became the name of the game. We are so off from what was established to be the norm that our current practices are considered to be the norm and thus acceptable. Am I mistaken? Where is fire prevention in the hierarchy of our priorities and where is suppression?

It wasn't because of the USFA's lack of trying though. The leadership during the early years -- The USFA used to be called National Fire Prevention and Control Administration (NFPCA -- worked tirelessly to materialize the visions outlined in the report. They worked hard to overcome the dichotomy and bridge the vast gap between the federal, state and local governments in better protecting our citizens across the land.

In the April 1976 issue of their internal bulletin "Fireword", in an article titled "NFPCA Designs Preliminary Concepts on the State Fire Safety Services", they first outlined their vision:

"What needs to be done to better respond to the current and future fire prevention and control needs at the state level? This question is being repeated in queries to the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration...States perform their roles in many areas such as healthcare, criminal justice, transportation, public education and agriculture. Coordinative roles include a comprehensive identification of problems and needs, State and local program coordination, and processing and/or distribution of Federal assistance. Similar functions are performed in fire prevention and control."

And then in another article titled "NFPCA Outlines Model State Organization" in the same bulletin they outlined their suggested game plan and their detailed organizational model. The excerpt below clearly points out that they were quite open-minded about their plans and viewed it as "one possible method" of cooperatively working together. Most importantly, in their game plan and suggested organizational structure, the role of the states was heavily emphasized.

"This model State concept for a State fire safety system establishes one possible method by which a State can provide a 'State fire focus.' The focal point for State fire programs will be referred to as the 'State Fire Commission.' However, it must be emphasized that the references here to organizational names are of secondary importance. The State Fire Commission would be the single State entity responsible for coordination and balance within the overall State fire prevention and control program. The Commission would be constituted to assure meaningful participation by the paid, part-paid and volunteer fire services, including chief officers, rank and file personnel and code administration and enforcement personnel typical of fire marshals' offices. It should also include representatives from local government administration, insurance industry, construction industry, consumer interests and State agencies such as the department of education, the State forester and the State fire marshal. This Commission would provide an opportunity for participation by the various interest groups and offer a mechanism for the balancing of various views. Functionally, the Commission would be a coordinating force overseeing the actual implementation of State fire programs."

The dedicated leadership of the NFPCA of the earlier years wasn't all talk and no action. In February 1977, Howard Tipton, then the NFPCA Administrator, held the State Fire Marshals Conference. Under a grant from the NFPAC, the Fire Marshals Association of North America which is currently called the International Fire Marshals Association (IFMA) prepared an outstanding report that is of great value even today.

In that report, Howard Tipton's letter to the FMANA's president, Howard Boyd, depicted NFPCA's vision and commitment to cooperatively work with the states as it is evident see from this excerpt:

"As you know the National Fire Administration is dedicated to the development of new tools and new concepts to support people on the state and the local levels in their efforts to prevent and control fires. This national effort requires an effective partnership relationship between the Fire Administration, state government, and local government. In many ways, our success depends on fire officials in state governments for effective implementation. We are living in a time of dynamic change and many complex problems. One of our problems has been in the identification of our relationship with the state governments and the establishment of functional working relationship."

The report clearly outlined the organizational model for such cooperative efforts between the NFPCA and the state organizations. Again, I don't want to bore you to tears by citing excerpts but I am simply at awe on how applicable those recommendations are to our present situation. How wonderfully detailed those recommendations were in clearly defining the frameworks of cooperation between the federal and state level fire organizations, the structure of the organizational model, and the funding distribution mechanisms.

Take a look, and then ask yourself why wouldn't it work today?

"Model State Fire Organization Concept - This report recommends that each state establish a state-level focal point for fire programs within the near future. The focal point should be advisory in nature and composed of, or directed by, a group that represents the fire interest organizations and functional agencies of the state. The state fire marshal should provide secretarial or staff services as needed while serving with the focal point group."

"Assistance Program - The major thrusts of assistance programs should be directed toward fire problem studies, corrective measures, equipment research and development, training program development, technical assistance, public education about fire, and fire service educational financial assistance. Each state should establish clearly identified procedures for receipt and disbursement of Federal funds that are obtained for accomplishing the goals and objectives of the state master plan for fire. States must list program priorities according to their potential impact on the fire problem and their ability to meet the goals and objectives of the state master plan for fire. The state fire marshal must have a direct involvement in assistance programs conducted within the state relating to fire prevention, fire investigation, and public fire prevention education."

"All states should develop a comprehensive master plan for fire that identifies needs, establishes priorities, and identifies roles and responsibilities. The participants strongly urged that the State Fire Marshal serve as the coordinator of the state master plan for fire...Financial needs for developing and implementing a state master plan for fire must be given high priority by state governments. NFPCA should also consider this as a priority in its financial assistance programs...The State Fire Marshal should distribute all Federal funds expended within the state for fire-related purposes and directly administer those funds that are designated by the state-level focal point for fire as part of the State Fire Marsha's responsibility."

Unanswered Questions
Eureka! That's it, they had it figured out. That indeed is one of the missing links even at this day and age. States must play a more significant role in addressing the fire problem in our country.

After all, that would address the Constitutional dichotomy concerns between the federal and states, and bridges the gap between the various governmental levels. It could also create a much more efficient accountability mechanism, and a much better organizational span of control.

Logically, from the span of control and organizational accountability perspectives it is more efficient and much more effective for the federal government to deal with the 50 states as the focal points rather than dealing individually with 30,185 fire departments across the land. The federal government should deal with the states.

That is how it is done in all other fields of education, healthcare, public works, etc., and even in the emergency management side of the firehouse, then why not for the fire side?

I don't know about you, but in my mind, the USFA should be the top leadership of the fire service, and serve as our Incident Commander (IC).

Just as we normally do with our Post Incident Critique, I would like to ask our IC to provide us with some answers and insights.

Here are some major questions that come to my mind that I hope someone in the leadership of the USFA could explain to us.

Simply stated, what happened? Originally, NFPAC generated and supported those organizational concepts back in 1976. Why didn't it go anywhere? Why was it abandoned by the USFA? Was there a better game plan and organizational model that replaced it? Which one? And where are we with that now?

If there is none, then why not? Isn't establishment of such game plan and organizational mechanism the responsibility of the USFA as was intended by Public Law 93-498. Why don't we have a comprehensive master plan for each state? By the same token, why don't we have one for our country?

I believe that the fire grants could, and should be used as an impetus for change for addressing the fire problem in our country.

I believe that even though the federal government cannot directly impose their ways and will on any state and local governments, they can and have done so indirectly through their federal grant and funding programs. This approach my friends is not new either and was also discussed as a part of the 1973 America Burning report recommendations.

Federal Grants Distribution
There are many examples in the various fields, where the federal grants are distributed to the states. Then, it gets distributed to the many counties and cities. There are current emergency management and DHS federal grants that get distributed similarly to the states first, and then from the states funnels down to the locals.

In my own state of Nevada for examples, the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Division of Emergency Management, is designated as the State Administrative Agency (SAA) for the distribution of funds from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The Nevada State Emergency Response Commission (SERC) receives and manages grants from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) Hazardous Materials Emergency Preparedness (HMEP). On the other hand, our state fire marshals office which is also a part of the Nevada Department of Public Safety is completely left out of the loop when it comes to the distribution of the fire grants.

I am sure there are more examples from across the land, but then why the double standards? If it works well for one side of the house; then why wouldn't it work for the other? Why not, establish the "State Focal Point for Fire Programs" and have the state fire marshal serve as the distributing point for the fire grants? The USFA could distribute the fire grants to the states through them.

The USFA could require the state fire marshals to develop their own "Fire Loss Management Plan" and apply competitively for the federal grants.

Why not? Why wouldn't it work? Wouldn't that introduce a much higher degree of responsibility and accountability into this AFG distribution equation? That would establish the much needed performance measurements and accountability mechanisms that we so desperately need.

Finding the Missing Links
Some will undoubtedly oppose the idea of introducing a middleman in the fire grant distribution process. I can hear them now saying: "Why in the world are you proposing adding yet another layer of bureaucracy there? What is wrong with what we have now?"

What else would the middleman do for us other than to introduce more time consuming bureaucratic aggravation?

You don't hear them say the same things about the DHS or the emergency management grants, and they don't adamantly oppose the states' involvement in the distribution of federal grants, do you? They might not like it there either. But they work within those established parameters within the system. Why can't they do the same here on the fire side?

Those opposed, would brush aside the role of the state fire marshals claiming that they are political appointees and that some of them are not even from the fire side.

But then, they forget that, like it or not, in our everyday reality in jurisdictions across the land. The fire service serve the political appointees, civil administrators and bureaucrats in our own localities.

Even at the very top at the national level, our very own U.S. Fire Administrator is a political appointee, and answers to other higher ranking bureaucrats. Am I wrong? Isn't it about time that we evolve and overcome those sophomoric views, toss away the egos, and work cooperatively for the sake of people who we are all sworn to best protect?

The intent of this article was not to merely discuss the organizational role of the states. But even more importantly, it was to focus on the systematic and organizational approach to address the fire problem in our country.

Indeed the role of the states and the state fire marshals must be underlined, since that is one of the missing links, but not the only one.

Not viewing fire as a national problem worthy of our systematic well-structured organizational effort, in my view is yet another missing link". And as a direct result of the above mentioned national organizational vacuum, not having a strong USFA Administrator to serve as our Incident Commander to address the fire problem in our country is of course the other important missing link.

My friends, we are all dedicated to provide our citizens with the highest level of fire protection. But we are doing that on the local basis alone and without a solid national game plan. We need a systematic organizational approach that could result in reduction of our annual national fire fatalities and our fire losses. In my mind, until we do organize and establish our national game plan, we are doing our own thing, we are in a sense freelancing. Thus, we will not realize the optimal reduction in fire losses that are within our reach.

Finding the missing links might not be as difficult as breaking the complacency that has shackled us down. I don't have the slightest doubt that we in the fire service have the ability and the organizational capability to change that. And change we must.

Related Links

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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