Ed Comeau, editor of Campus Firewatch and the U.S. Fire Administration has been tracking a disturbing trend over the past four months. There appears to be an increase in multiple-fatality fires across the country.
While this could just be an anomaly, it points to two population factors that are going to impact the fire service directly and every department in the nation. High school and college kids are entering society, many without the knowledge of fire safety education. The last thing they may have remembered was "stop, drop and roll" when they were in elementary school. Remember when you were between the ages of 14 and 24? You probably thought you were somewhere between Batman and Superman on the invincibility scale. So these population groups understand things in a different way than when they were in grade school. When one considers the upsetting trend in high school and college age drinking, the combination is not a pretty picture for safe behaviors in the future.
The second big trend is the retirement of the baby boomers. This group will become more of a risk by the sheer force of their numbers. When one considers the impact of just these two factors coupled with all of the emergency services we provide, it is easy to see that the present fire and emergency services system could become overwhelmed. This is more critical for us in the U.S., than, for example in the United Kingdom or Japan. Both of those countries have emphasized comprehensive prevention for some time, and they have the results to prove it. We, on the other hand, have a suppression-based service.
Regardless of the progression of the two population trends, we are going to need a strong and consistent emphasis on prevention and public fire education to control our labor and costs of suppression within the limits our citizens will support. The next time you want to ask for the funding for a public educator, use this financial argument. It may help. We, in particular, see the same trend in health prevention vs. the overtaxing of our nations emergency rooms because we spend a lot of time there ourselves.
An Educated Citizen is Our Most Important Asset
So what does all of this mean in terms of our future goals? It will require a cultural shift from fire service leaders. The phrase, "300 years of tradition unimpeded by progress", never really did apply to the best of us. It can never apply to any of us again.
In order to fulfill the on-going, progressive mission of the fire service in light of present and future trends the fire service - each department - must evolve into even more of a full service fire and emergency services protection agency. One of the more effective aspects of this change will be much more of an emphasis on citizen education. We are fortunate that we have, in our country, a small but mighty group of dedicated and ingenious public fire educators. We need to recruit more educators and give them the training and support to do the job. This means making the role of educator a destination position for those who desire it. We should direct our recruitment to minorities in communities where the population dictates it.
We should make a concerted effort to study in detail the British and Japanese models of success, applying what works to our own cases. In particular, Chief Tony McGuirk, of the Merseyside Fire Brigade as drastically reduced the fire, death and injury rate through the application of marketing and education to this very large jurisdiction just outside Liverpool, England. We can also look to our own backyards for best practices from around the country.
We can rise to the challenges these trends portend, but it will require courageous leadership, organizational effectiveness and an effective, comprehensive marketing plan to achieve the success our citizens and fire fighters deserve. Another term come to mind: "lead or follow, but get out of the way." Our future and the safety of our citizens depend on it.
Ben May, a Firehouse.Com and Firehouse Magazine contributing editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District.