Fire Service Veteran Named USFA Chief Operating Officer

The appointment of an experienced firefighter to be the chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) is an important step in the on-going effort to rehabilitate that troubled agency and strengthen the National Fire Academy.

Chief Kenneth O. Burris Jr. of the Marietta, GA, Fire Department was named to the newly created post by James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As the chief operating officer (COO), Burris will be responsible for USFA's overall, day-to-day management. He will report directly to both the USFA administrator and the FEMA director, while serving as their top advisor on fire-rescue issues.

However, unlike the administrator and the director - who hold political appointments made by the President - the COO is a senior executive service career appointee. It means he will stay on the job, even when the administration changes in Washington and new people are named to head FEMA and USFA. The idea in creating the post was to have someone at the upper management level who could maintain continuity in running the federal fire programs. (The superintendent of the Fire Academy also is a career position.)

Burris, 45, has been a firefighter for 23 years and chief of his department since 1992. He earned a bachelor's degree in fire protection engineering from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in public administration from Kennesaw University. Burris has served as treasurer of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and was the president of the IAFC's southeastern region.

In announcing the appointment, FEMA Director Witt said: "As a metropolitan-area fire chief, Ken brings exceptional practical experience to the COO position and an understanding of the needs of the fire community, which the USFA was established to serve. Most importantly, he is an innovative leader who can implement new strategies to take the fire service into the next century."

The importance of his new position was emphasized by Chief Richard Marinucci of Farmington Hills, MI, who has been the acting COO while temporarily serving as a deputy to Witt to implement recommendations aimed at revitalizing USFA and the Academy. He points out that one of the weaknesses in the federal programs has been the lack of continuity caused by the leadership changing as control of the White House changed. "At times it has taken a new president almost two years to appoint a fire administrator and you never know who that person will be," Marinucci explains.

The USFA administrator will still be the top-ranking federal fire official and, hopefully, future appointees will come from the ranks of the fire service. But, as we've seen, there's no guarantee that a president will always choose someone with fire-rescue experience. Having a fire officer in a key management position - not subject to political pressures - also helps ensure that the fire service's viewpoint will be heard, regardless of who the USFA administrator may be.

A crucial question that cannot be answered at this time is how much input and influence the chief operating officer actually will have on FEMA, which is USFA's parent agency. Until Witt came along, USFA had very little input or influence at FEMA headquarters and often was left out of the decision-making process, even when the policies being considered directly involved the fire-rescue service or had an impact on the fire programs. While there has been improvement under Witt, that problem remains at the root of many concerns fire leaders have about FEMA and USFA.

The creation of the new COO post is the direct result of a chain of events set in motion 18 months ago, when a group of Fire Academy staff members issued a blistering "white paper." It was highly critical of FEMA and USFA's leadership for misuse of resources, neglect of the Academy, and failing to fight for the funding to maintain and advance the federal fire programs. This led to the formation of a "blue ribbon" panel of fire service leaders to examine the problems. They came out with a hard-hitting report that made 34 recommendations and cited a "broken covenant" between the federal agencies and the fire-rescue community they were supposed to serve.

Last spring, Witt appointed Marinucci as a special assistant to begin implementing the panel's recommendations. Marinucci, a former president of the IAFC, formed a small working group of six chief officers that produced a "Draft Action Plan." It breaks down the panel's recommendations into four major categories:

  1. The USFA's core mission.
  2. Leadership and communications.
  3. Staff development.
  4. Advocacy, partnerships and marketing.

A series of specific solutions are proposed for every issue and the appointment of a chief operating officer is only one of more than 100 remaining proposals. Last month, the draft plan was circulated to the fire community for comments and changes.

The comments are being evaluated as this is written, but some of the changes will be implemented without delay. Others will take three to five years and require more money from Congress. "This represents a change of culture for FEMA and USFA," says Marinucci, who will return to his fire department in Michigan. The fire service owes thanks to Director Witt, Chief Marinucci, his working group, the blue ribbon panel and the Fire Academy staffers who started a rebellion with their white paper.

The draft plan presents some lofty goals, but they are exactly what the fire service had in mind 25 years ago, when the federal fire programs first began. Sadly, there have been many disappointments and frustrations, because no administration ever cared enough to provide the money and leadership that were needed. Now, the USFA and Fire Academy are getting one more chance and, as COO Ken Burris sees it, "We're at a crossroads and we have the opportunity to make it a success if we go in the right direction."

He's right about that, but it will depend on how fast and how well they act on the Action Plan's remaining proposals.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.