The F*I*R*E System: Organizing Our Functions

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I have been in the fire service for 32 years, and in that time I have witnessed a tremendous amount of growth in our service’s duties and responsibilities. We started, of course, with putting out fires, but the service soon escalated to extricating people trapped in cars, a service that we readily accepted with the advent of hydraulic extrication tools. Shortly after building our “rescue truck,†we started to administer first aid to the people we were cutting out of cars. With the introduction of portable defibrillators, we became a full-blown paramedic service. Along came the 1980s and hazardous material legislation, and we found our service expanding to include response to hazmat spills. And since 9/11, we have embraced our newest responsibility: protecting the public from weapons of mass destruction.

Many fire departments feel overwhelmed by all of these duties, and it is not uncommon to hear firefighters and administrators alike wishing they could return to the “good old days†and our core functions. But what exactly are our core functions? How do we define our organizational goals in such diverse times? Is there a common thread that ties all of these functions together?

One answer occurred to me while I was attending college. Colleges are divided into two schools: arts and sciences. Ignoring the school of arts for now, the school of sciences is further divided into two schools: the school of physical sciences and the school of social sciences. The physical sciences are defined by the laws of nature and include such topics as chemistry, biology, meteorology and physics. The social sciences are defined by man-made laws and include political science, sociology and psychology. Police and fire departments both respond to emergencies: The police respond to emergencies involving the social sciences; fire departments respond to emergencies involving the physical sciences.

Let me give you an example: dispatch receives a call of a motor vehicle accident. Police are sent to determine who was at fault, whether any laws were broken and by whom, and to reroute traffic and keep society going about its activities. The fire department is sent to extricate the victim (a physics emergency); provide EMS service to the victims (a biological emergency); and to put out any fire and contain any fluids on the ground (chemical emergencies). The fire service is an organization that administers to emergencies involving the physical sciences.

But there are many departments in America today that do not accept all of these responsibilities. You may hear, “We don’t do hazmat, it’s too expensive.†And while many fire departments don’t do EMS, the fact is that over 80% of the fire departments in America are their municipalities’ EMS providers. Here is a litmus test: if a call comes into dispatch for any kind of emergency, be it a tanker rollover on a highway or a hang glider caught up in power lines, and if a dispatcher tones you out to that call, you’re in that business. You may not be prepared for that call, but it’s yours.

What the fire service of today needs to do is to come up with a system to manage the myriad services we provide to our communities. This goal can be accomplished! When compelled to develop a system to cover a 168-hour workweek, our forefathers developed the platoon system. When they needed a way to manage incidents, they devised the incident command system. Similarly, we need a system to organize our functions, and this can be done with an anagram that allows us to divide our workload into four manageable functions – the F*I*R*E system:

F – Fire, and this includes suppression, education and prevention

I – Immediate medical (I know we call it EMS, but I need an I)

R – Rescue, and includes not only vehicle extrication, but also all the various technical rescue fields

E – Environmental emergencies, and this includes both man’s impact on the environment (hazmat) and the environment’s impact on man (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters)

You can use this anagram to develop the fire service’s mission statement: we protect people from physical harm by providing Fire, Immediate medical, Rescue and Environmental services. We are the F*I*R*E service.

Training – I use the F*I*R*E system to balance my company’s training. Starting at the beginning of the year with a blank calendar, I add classes in all four divisions until all our bases are covered. Using the F*I*R*E system, my company doesn’t receive too much hazmat training and not enough rescue work. I can see where we become out of balance and adjust accordingly.

Apparatus – You can use the F*I*R*E system to determine what apparatus carries what equipment. Your first-due piece can carry enough basic tools to cover basic operations and specialty apparatus can respond with technical gear.

Operations – You can use the F*I*R*E system with your incident command system or the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The “operations chief†will direct the major function of any given incident. Incidental functions can be assigned “branch managers.â€

Administration – The system shines especially well at the administration level. You can use this system to explain to municipal leaders that you don’t just sit around waiting for fires; you respond to all of the community’s physical emergency needs. Break down your department’s budget into Fire, Immediate medical, Rescue and Environmental programs to justify your existence.

Letting the community see your various roles can help you to finance your department’s needs. This system also is invaluable in balancing a community’s needs with its resources. By showing residents what manpower, equipment and training they have already invested in, you show them the next logical step to a balanced, effective F*I*R*E department.


John Colli is a deputy chief with the East Hartford, CT, Fire Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration with a concentration in fire protection. Colli may be contacted at bcolli@comcast.net.

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