Firehouse® Interview: U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison

R. David Paulison of Miami was appointed U.S. Fire Administrator in December 2001. As U.S. Fire Administrator, Paulison heads the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and supports state and local fire service programs as well as implementing FEMA Director Joe M. Allbaugh's initiatives for emergency readiness, firefighter training and equipment. The mission of the USFA is to reduce life and economic losses due to fire and related emergencies through public education, training, technology and data research initiatives in coordination with other federal agencies and in partnership with fire protection and emergency service communities.

Courtesy of USFA
U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison

Before accepting this post, Paulison, who has 30 years of fire-rescue service experience, had been chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department since 1992. In that position, he oversaw 1,900 personnel with a $200 million operating budget and a $70 million capital budget. He also oversaw the county's emergency management office.

Paulison is no stranger to the fire service or emergency management. When accepting the position in December 2001 (post 9/11), he knew that a great challenge lay ahead, yet he explained that he was and is very optimistic. While participating in the selection process, Paulison said, he could tell that the expectations of this position would be different than ever before. "When I interviewed with FEMA Director Allbaugh, it was not business as usual," he recalled. Paulison said he saw that the chemistry was "right" and that he understood clearly that the USFA would be very involved with public policy.

The interview was conducted by Firehouse® Magazine Contributing Editor Charles Werner.

Firehouse: What are the major fire service projects that you are working on?

Paulison: First, the USFA is moving forward on the strategic plan and reorganization that was initiated by Ken Burris (Paulison's predecessor), which is a very good plan. The two largest points under the strategic plan are to reduce civilian fire deaths, especially for the age groups under 14 and over 65, and to reduce firefighter deaths.

(Equipment compatibility/interchangeability such as self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, hydraulic rescue tools and other critical firefighting equipment is also on Paulison's to-do list.) There was a major problem during the Pentagon attack, this was a very intensive firefighting effort and it was hard keeping up with air-supply needs. Yet, when 150 air tanks were brought in, they were not usable due to equipment incompatibility. Why is it that we can buy a scuba tank from anyplace in the U.S. and it is interchangeable, but fire service SCBA is not? There is a fundamental flaw with this.

(Paulison said the USFA will be teaming up with manufacturers to develop solutions with equipment compatibility.) I am very optimistic because many of the manufacturers have come to me expressed a willingness to participate. That's a really good sign.

(Paulison also indicated that radio communications is another critical component for effective emergency response.) This will require a long-range strategy that will involve radio spectrum for public safety and a short-range strategy focused more on interoperability.

There must be a single national incident/unified command system within the United States. It is very likely that a local-incident/unified-command policy will be tied to future grant funding. We have repeatedly seen where a incident and/or unified command system can make a significant difference to an incident's outcome.

(Paulison said he adamantly supports firefighter wellness programs.) Each year, we lose approximately 100 firefighters, most of which are a result of health-related issues or vehicle accidents. It doesn't make sense to keep losing firefighters in the areas that we can fix. The fire service has ignored this long enough.

Firehouse: What is the role of the USFA in Homeland Defense?

Paulison: The USFA is going to play a major role. Firefighters and first responders are an integral part of Homeland Defense and the Congress and President understand that. In previous administrations, the USFA was a satellite of FEMA, but today we are an integral part and are directly involved in a lot of decisions. My office is directly next door to FEMA Director Allbaugh and we talk regularly. It is a refreshing change and I am confident that the USFA will have a significant impact.

(When asked to share an example, Paulison said many of the items in his speeches to the fire and emergency services community are now part of the President's strategy for homeland security. These issues include a single incident command system, equipment interoperability and credentialing, to name a few.)

Firehouse: What impact has the Homeland Defense initiative had or do you think it will have on the USFA and the National Fire Academy?

Paulison: The USFA will have a much stronger impact. The Emergency Management Institute (EMI) and National Fire Academy (NFA) are all under the USFA and that will continue under one roof in the Homeland Defense initiative. The USFA will be the central agency responsible for training first responders and emergency managers. I see this as not only a partnership, but more of a focal point for the national strategy on domestic Homeland Defense training.

Firehouse: Is the National Fire Academy safe and being funded as needed?

Paulison: Yes, there is no move afoot to defer any funding. We must make sure that the programs are robust. We must look toward outside learning opportunities with NFA/EMI programs and expand the state programs, which are underutilized. The USFA must also look into learning development centers, distance learning and web-based learning programs.

Firehouse: What is the status of the academy after the items recommended to be fixed, changed or updated?

Paulison: A Stakeholder meeting took place in early September to go over the issues from last year. Reorganization is almost complete, which should result in better employee morale and a more effective team. My new deputy administrator, Charlie Dickinson (former chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Fire), is running the campus. His office is right there and he is interacting with those that are attending and visiting the EMI/NFA campus. He keeps things running smoothly and he keeps me informed.

Firehouse: How is the FIRE Grant program working?

Paulison: Extremely well. This grant period, we will distribute $360 million. $150 million was to be distributed by Sept. 30, 2002, and the remainder by Dec. 30, 2002. This is a very important program, especially to those departments that need the very basic equipment. The President and Congress understand the importance and the impact that this program is having on the fire service.

The exciting news is that the FY2003 (which began in October 2002) budget has $900 million in recommended funding from the Senate, for the FIRE Grant program.

Firehouse: Is there anything that the fire departments across the country can do to better prepare for the grant program?

Paulison: Yes, they can stay updated on the grant information by visiting the website and by attending workshops. Remember when writing the grant request that you are writing to other firefighters. Tell what you need and why, follow the grant instructions. The grants are evaluated by 300 fire service peers (career and volunteer fire service representatives) who have volunteered their time to do so.

Firehouse: Is it true that only 50 FIRE Grant applications were submitted on paper? If so, were you surprised by this?

Paulison: Yes, only an estimated 50 grant applications were submitted in written form. The rest were completed electronically. I think we were all surprised by the result and it may have caused some problems early on for the website portal. The volume was much more than we expected and of course they all came in at the last minute. The web portal was restricting the flow, but our website staff quickly resolved the problem and the applications continued to flow. One important note - this is the first web-based grant program implemented by the federal government.

Firehouse: What are the toughest technology challenges that you see facing the fire service?

Paulison: Radio communications, firefighter accountability and equipment compatibility. As I mentioned before, there is a need to have a long- and short-range strategy toward radio communications. It is my hope that technology will provide a radio that will have interoperability and can be programmed to any frequency, regardless of band. During the interim, we must facilitate equipment that is mobile and can be moved to a site to provide interoperability by interfacing multiple radio systems. The long-term strategy will be to reserve radio spectrum for public safety and set it aside. Firefighter accountability is a difficult technology challenge. There are fairly good systems that track movement of firefighters inside and out, but we lose track when firefighters go inside. Accountability systems must be able to track the physical location of firefighters inside buildings and monitor their health and wellness. The two most important concerns for every incident commander are 'how they are' and 'where they are.' "

Firehouse: How do you feel about thermal imaging cameras?

Paulison: They are absolutely an asset, but we are still using 20-year-old technology. We must work with the military to transition new technology to the fire service.

Firehouse: Is the USFA working with the military regarding the transition of technology to the fire service?

Paulison: Yes, there has been a very positive move on their part in the area of cooperation - they came to us. We are setting up formal meetings with the military to explore new initiatives. It is very promising."

Firehouse: Do you see any new funding sources that would support research on technology or firefighting improvements?

Paulison: There is a renewed interest for both the fire service and military regarding research for equipment. It will be an issue to deal with, but there are positive signs.

Firehouse: What has been happening with the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS)?

Paulison: Unfortunately, due to the Homeland Defense initiative, NFIRS has been on the back burner. We are also waiting to see what impact the Homeland Defense strategy will have on NFIRS. We will have to review NFIRS to see if it needs to be expanded. That will have to wait until the Homeland Defense slows down, probably after Jan. 1, 2003. Remember, first things first.

The USFA will be looking into statistical testing and modeling. We need to get information into a usable format. NFIRS is not being utilized to the capacity that it should because not everyone participates.

Firehouse: What progress has been made with the information-sharing project between the USFA's Critical Infrastructure Protection Center and the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC)?

Paulison: It is going very well. I foresee sending out information to fire chiefs with significant information that will identify credible threats. In the future, the Office of National Preparedness will be working to provide security clearances to five representatives in every state to support access to secure information.

Firehouse: The USFA website recently underwent a design change to make it more user-friendly. What process do you use to determine the look and feel of the website?

Paulison: It's a simple matter of understanding my philosophy and empowering the website staff to make it happen. They have done an excellent job to make the website viable, informative, timely and robust.

Firehouse: Is there anything else that you would like to communicate to the fire service?

Paulison: The support from the fire service has been phenomenal and I plan to take advantage of that support. It has been great. Charlie Dickinson and Marko Bourne make up a great administrative team, and an excellent and dedicated staff supports me. My relationship with FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh is phenomenal.