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We recently witnessed on national TV what it takes to survive 39 days on an island with 16 people. While I do not advocate the methods that were employed in order to come out on top, it caused me to think about the survival of the modern fire service.
The basic concept of extinguishing fire by absorbing the heat it generates, using water as an extinguishing medium, has changed little in the 350-plus years of the American fire service. The workplace at first blush looks very much like it did even a century ago. The biggest revelation for the fire service until about 1980 was the introduction of motorized fire apparatus, which began to gain popularity primarily after World War I.
It might appear from the outside as though the fire service could get along fine without exploring new technologies or greatly departing from the tradition in which we are so deeply steeped. Upon closer examination, however, one quickly realizes that the rich tradition that has brought the fire service to this point in history will not, in and of itself, take us into the new millennium.
To prove this theory about the future of the fire service, one must first look back at its colorful past by analyzing the traditional organization of the fire service and comparing it to a more modern alternative.
The traditional fire service organization held a centralized form of authority. The fire chief ruled supreme over the entire department. He made the decisions on all matters of business, and every matter of business had to come across his desk, no matter how minuscule. Having brilliantly deducted the course of action needed, the fire chief then informed the officers serving under him of his new edict. This command decision would now be filtered down the chain of command. Depending upon the size of the department there may or may not be other level(s) of chief officers within the traditional organization.
Please note that I have drawn particular attention to the fact that the traditional fire chief was a he. Females were not a part of the traditional fire service organization at any level, much less considered fire chief material.
It is not entirely fair to depict only the fire service with this sort of authority chain. Virtually all organizations of the centralized authority era operated in a similar manner. Large corporations, lending institutions, hospitals, and governments at the federal, state and local levels all needed to be in the same big building or facility to ensure that the information that flowed from the top was consistent and timely. Personnel at the bottom of the flow chart in the traditional organization were not as educated as today's workforce and subsequently they would wait for orders, policy and instruction from the top before making a move.
Technology is such today that many employees work from their homes. Workers of today include more independent thinkers than before. They are more highly educated and thus motivated. Information - including orders, policy and instruction - is available at the press of a button.
The centralized bureaucracy that was vital 50 or 60 years ago is incredibly slow to respond to the needs of the information generation, and thus has become outdated. Conversely, a decentralized line of authority gives personnel freedom and autonomy to be creative and innovative. Decentralization gives employees a sense of ownership in the process, further motivating them because of the newfound level of trust and expectation extended to them.
In the traditional organization the fire chief was the high commander over the fireground. He was also responsible for all the training. Budget concerns were exclusively his, as were the purchases of equipment and apparatus. The location and design of new firehouses rested with who? The fire chief. The fire chief was also in charge of all fire prevention efforts, as well as public information/education campaigns.