The Fire Officer's Role in a Changing World

At the risk of "pigeon-holing" members the fire service of 2003, I want to take you on a little journey through the civil war being waged between the traditionalists and the rebels who make up much of our numbers in the early 21st century. I must acknowledge up front that there are no clear boundaries between change agents and change resistors. Their differences are not defined by age, experience, gender, career/volunteer, veteran/non-veteran status, or any of the other usual dividing lines found in the fire service.

It is simply a fact that some people are more open to changing the way things are done than others. Does this pose a problem for those charged with the responsibility of leading the fire service? Well, uh, yes and no. That is to say, maybe and maybe not.

Lots of articles have been written about being sensitive to the diverse elements of the modern workforce. Employee values are determined, to a large extent, by the influences of family, church, schools, geography, income, and the media, among others. The values of loyalty, job satisfaction, rewards, success and identity are often molded by those factors listed above. But that's not my purpose in this month's column. I want to address the simple struggle going on between those who seek to improve things by doing them in a new and different way and those who cling to the tried and true methods of the past. As a fire officer, you will surely be thrust into the middle of this conflict sooner rather than later, if you haven't already been there.

Let's examine a few trends presently going on in our profession that are causing people to draw lines and take sides, shall we?

1. Specialization

2. Technological Advocacy - A vast number of departments have embraced the increase of such technological advances as smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detection, and sprinkler systems. Many have also gone a bit farther to make use of thermal imaging, advanced radio and communication systems, and information management, or automated records systems. And yet, I continue to hear firefighters complain about the additional requirements of their jobs with regard to data collection and analysis. I realize that entering an incident report on a computer workstation isn't the glamour we all joined up for, but it is absolutely vital, isn't it? It is true that data drives decisions; therefore, good data is a requirement for good decision-making. Automated data is the key to improving resource deployment strategies, decreasing response times, improving firefighter safety, and improving productivity. So, with all those potential benefits, why do we encounter so much resistance to the process of acquiring and analyzing data?

3. Establishing Partnerships - It is easy enough to explain the potential benefits of improved mutual aid and automatic aid agreements with neighboring fire jurisdictions, isn't it? And, whether we like to admit it or not, we all know that improved relations with our brothers and sisters in law enforcement is a good thing these days, what with joint responses to meth labs and various other, equally dangerous situations. But we are facing a need to align ourselves with partners we may never have even considered before. Earlier, I mentioned forest fuels reduction as a specialized service that is more and more a part of our arena in the fire suppression service. How many of you would have ever thought you'd see a time when the local fire department hooked up, not just with the Environmental Protection Agency and similar state-level outfits, but also with the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and other environmental organizations? Well, it's happening all over the West, I assure you, and probably in other places as well. And we're also forging new relationships with healthcare agencies, insurance organizations, safety groups, transportation overseers, regulatory agencies, the media, the military, and on and on.

So, is our comfortable little world changing? You bet it is, and it's going to get a whole lot more frantic as time goes on. Where do you stand? Are you eager to see what's on the horizon, or would you prefer a return to a simpler time? If the latter, then you have my sympathy because I don't think it's going to work out too well for your preference.

As leaders, our role in these hectic and tumultuous times is a complex one. We must not only try to understand and make use of what's on the immediate horizon, but we need to also forecast what may be out there farther ahead, a bit more difficult to see. And we must also "grease the skids" a little to help our subordinates understand and embrace the need for rapid change.

I have a lot of faith in firefighters. They never cease to amaze me, as each generation gets a little smarter and more eager to change things. They may occasionally seem a trifle weird until you get use to them, but that's okay, isn't it? I suppose we were a little weird too.

Have questions or comments regarding this topic? Contact me at I would enjoy hearing from you.

Bruce Thompson is the chief of the Sierra Vista(AZ) Fire Department. Chief Thompson started his fire service career in 1974. He is a Past President of the Arizona Fire Chiefs? Association and a 1989 graduate of the National Fire Academy?s Executive Officer Program. E-mail Chief Thompson at: