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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 serviceâ€™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 â€œrescue truck,â€ 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 â€œgood old daysâ€ 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, â€œWe donâ€™t do hazmat, itâ€™s too expensive.â€ And while many fire departments donâ€™t do EMS, the fact is that over 80% of the fire departments in America are their municipalitiesâ€™ 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, youâ€™re in that business. You may not be prepared for that call, but itâ€™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 â€“ the F*I*R*E system:
F â€“ Fire, and this includes suppression, education and prevention