The Survival Of The Modern Fire Service

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.

The complexities of all the functions under the span of control of the fire chief grew as the municipality grew. Other factors influencing this exponential growth of accountability were federal mandates and industry standards that were created as a result of an outcry for greater safety considerations. Included as a factor were the needs of the customer who insist that the fire service step up and be more proactive in its approach to service, instead of reactive.

To that point in our rich history, our focus had been concerted toward better firefighting. Now, a new thrust has caused us to spend a more significant effort in preventing fires. Prevention, however, was not as glamorous as being on a hoseline and so was greatly resisted. It would become painfully obvious that the ability of the traditional fire chief to manage all the aforementioned functions would be greatly hindered, if not precluded, unless he were to delegate many of these functions and decentralize his authority.

In the traditional fire service there was no need for a large number of staff functions. The focus was on field operations; after all, field operations were the fire department. The staff positions of the traditional fire service were reserved largely for the line personnel who were injured and no longer able to ride on a rig. If the fire chief in question was to survive in this new accountability climate, he or she would have to not only delegate functions, but find qualified people to fill these positions.

An entire industry has spawned as a result of this newfound accountability in the fire service. A tremendous amount of technical expertise is required for each of the specialized staff disciplines that have been created as a result of this accountability. In the modern fire service a multitude of staff officers - the "white shirts" or, even more affectionately, "shirts" - are required to oversee the newly specialized areas of the fire service. Health and safety, hazardous materials, fire prevention, fire investigations, code enforcement, public education, technical rescue, emergency medical service, research and development, communications and training issues for all of the above represent the disciplines found in the modern fire department's cache of staff positions.

The discerning modern fire chief must always remember, that while these staff functions are vital for the efficiency and compliance of the department, he or she cannot become so caught up in staff functions that line operations are neglected. Staff functions are integral pieces in the fire service puzzle but they are not the entire puzzle. Both staff and line will work best when they are prioritized to complement one another, rather than compete.

It has been said that change is inevitable, growth is optional. In this information age we live in, it is not a question of whether things will change, but rather how and to what degree will they change. Change is difficult for any organization because it takes people out of their comfort zone. Making anything different, even the most benign of tasks, forces people to adjust. We are creatures of habit and for most of us it is an inconvenience to be compelled to depart from our routines. Modern fire chiefs must brace themselves for the skepticism and even cynicism and fallout based on previous attempts at change that were ineffective.

"We tried something like this before and it didn't work then, what makes them think it will work now?" This is a cry that can often be heard in any industry. Previous attempts at implementing change most often failed because management failed. The modern fire chief must understand the source of the obstacles and resistance, and find ways to incorporate them in the change process.

Because it is difficult to complain about a program if your name is on it, the modern fire chief must involve all key players in the process so that the perception of something flowing downhill to the rank and file is minimized or even eliminated. If the people affected by the change have input into the process, it will be received much easier.

Why does the fire service need to change? One need only look to the dinosaur for the answer. Because of its failure to adapt to the changing environment, the dinosaur disappeared. "Oh, that could never happen to the fire service. There will always be fires, therefore there will always be firefighters."

There may always be a fire service, but perhaps not as we know it. If it is not responsive to the needs of the customer, does not make wise business decisions when selecting equipment, scoffs at ways of measuring its effectiveness, fails to comply with regulations and standards, ignores avenues for alternative funding and does not empower its workforce, then the fire service as we know it, rich in tradition and steeped in pride, could find itself extinct.

Chief Concerns is a forum addressing issues of interest to chief fire officers. Opinions expressed are those of the writer. We invite all volunteer and career chief fire officers to share their concerns, experiences and views in this column. Please submit articles to Chief Concerns, Firehouse Magazine, 445 Broad Hollow Road, Melville, NY 11747.

Greg H. Neely is a district chief with the Tulsa Fire Department. He is a field instructor and program coordinator for Oklahoma State University/Fire Service Training as well as an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy. Neely is currently working toward a master's degree in fire and emergency management from OSU and is a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer alumnus. He also provides motivational speaking, assessment center training, promotional assessments and examinations, along with officer development. Neely can be reached via e-mail: