The fire service has a special role in society and a unique relationship with our customers. I have spoken with many customers after we have provided service to them … sometimes months or years afterwards. It's interesting how they describe their event and the way they incorporate us into the scenario.
As our customers think back on the day they dialed 911 for our help, many remember that day as one of, if not the worst day of their lives. That's an awesome responsibility for our fire departments and all other fire service organizations and agencies.
When you really think it through, we're in the "worst day of their lives" business. Knowing that, we should continually ask ourselves how we would want the system to address this "worst day of their lives" reality if we were the person having it.
In Mesa we get a lot of letters from our customers after we have provided service in various situations. The content rarely deals with the "basics" of our work. It usually describes special efforts or extraordinary acts of kindness and caring the customer received from our members. The following is an actual letter:
Dear Chief Compton:
Recently, my family and I returned to what had been our home for the past 18 years to find that it, and most of our possessions, had been destroyed by fire. The firefighters were able to put out the fire before everything was a total loss, and for that we are grateful. However, putting out fires is their job…it's what they get paid to do.
What they are not paid to do is be compassionate beyond belief to people who have just lost a lifetime of memories; nor would we think it was their job to help teary-eyed people deal with the media, curiosity seekers, and others who found their way to our fire for some reason. They are not paid to be patient and friendly to strangers who are distraught and despondent. It isn't their job to be so nice.
These are the characteristics that were displayed by all of your firefighters, each and every one of them. Random acts of kindness were the rule rather than the exception … that afternoon, and for days after the fire when they stopped by with more moving boxes and just to see how we were doing.
Now, when we hear sirens, we say a prayer that is longer and more specific than ever for the safekeeping of the firefighters. We are forever grateful.
It's interesting how this customer describes us, our service and the effect we had on what will always be remembered as one of the "worst days of their lives." I think that, although the customer was surprised, most firefighters would say that the behaviors described in the letter are our job. In fact, it's everyone's job in the fire service to do everything we can to prevent people's "worst day of their lives"; to educate them at every opportunity to survive that "worst day" should it happen, and, if or when it does occur, to respond quickly, skillfully, and with the same level of service, quality and caring described in the letter. It is also our jobs to make the support systems around our line service delivery programs (prevention, all-risk public education and emergency response) as effective and stable as possible.
A three-legged stool provides an excellent illustration of a system that is at its strongest when all of its interdependent parts work together. It shows our three primary service delivery elements and the importance of strong support components to brace these external service programs in order to meet the overall mission. It illustrates a focus that will strengthen the performance of any fire department. It helps us understand that everything is connected to everything else…and that a weakness in any part of the stool makes it useless … unable to support the entire mission.
The seat of the stool represents the mission of the fire service: fire and life safety. For most of the fire service, this represents a vision of protecting the community from a full range of hazards and harm that might be encountered.
The three legs are the external service delivery elements of a fire department: fire prevention, public education and emergency response. The stool demonstrates the equal importance of each of the three elements: strong fire prevention codes and efforts, an all-risk approach to public education, and an emergency response system designed to deliver a full range of emergency services. Each element is critical and represents investments in the short- and long-term public safety infrastructure of a community.
Fire prevention codes that incorporate current practices and requirements form a foundation for safe structures and help people survive incidents that occur in those structures. It's also important that built-in protection, such as sprinkler systems and general plans review efforts, be included in the prevention equation. Fire departments should use a variety of approaches to encourage and require compliance with codes and other standards. The stool cannot support the weight of the overall mission without a strong fire prevention leg designed to maintain safety in today's communities, but, just as importantly, build safer communities for tomorrow. It's an investment in the public safety infrastructure of the community and an equally important line service delivery program.
All-risk public education programs are a must for fire departments. It is critical that public education programs are designed around meeting the educational needs of the entire mission, not just fire safety education. In Mesa, we have committed to the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA's) Risk Watch™ program as the primary delivery system for our efforts. Mesa is proud to be a Risk Watch™ Champion Community. Our goal is to incorporate Risk Watch™ into the curriculum at the schools in Mesa within five years, and our mayor, city council and city manager have committed significant resources to meet this goal. If you are not familiar with Risk Watch™, it's time you learned about it. Risk Watch™ is designed for pre-school through eighth grade and incorporates eight lessons within a series of five modules:
- 1. Motor vehicle safety.
- 2. Fire and burn prevention.
- 3. Choking, suffocation and strangulation prevention.
- 4. Poisoning prevention.
- 5. Falls prevention.
- 6. Firearms injury prevention.
- 7. Bike and pedestrian safety.
- 8. Water safety
Risk Watch™ is based on developing effective community coalitions and does not simply rely on fire departments for its success. The local fire department is a key partner, and probably could be the catalyst for the program, but other agencies with related missions must also be actively involved. One advantage of Risk Watch™ is that the fire department does not assume the overhead costs associated with staff and materials needed to develop curriculum, validate it, keep it current, and design materials to teach and supplement the core program.
There are several models for funding Risk Watch™, and each community must select the one that fits its situation. I favor allocating funding from the fire department's operating budget to extend the baseline program and seeking alternative funding sources to go beyond the baseline program and target special hazard populations.
A public education component of a service delivery system is no more or less important than any other line service delivery program and should be somehow recognized as such in the financial expenditure plan for the system. Rather than trying to explain Risk Watch™ in its entirety in this article, I encourage you to contact the NFPA's Public Education Division for complete information at (617) 984-7285, or visit the website at www.nfpa.org.
All-risk public education using the Risk Watch™ program as the delivery mechanism is a key part of the stool. Without a strong public education leg, the stool will not support the full weight of the mission and could be dysfunctional or useless. As any firefighter would say, "The greatest rescue is the one we didn't have to make … the customers got themselves out of a situation safely because of something they had been taught prior to the incident."
Emergency response is a critical service delivery piece of the system. This leg of the stool is just as important as the other two. When our customers dial 911 they expect and require service that is fast, skillful and provided by firefighters who care. This includes response to fires, medical emergencies, hazmat situations, technical rescues and a wide range of service calls. Our emergency response menu has changed significantly over the years, and that change cycle will continue into the future. Without a strong emergency response element of the system, the stool is not stable and cannot support the weight of the mission.
The braces that support the legs of the stool are also important to its overall stability. These include the broad categories of:
- Training and preparation to perform in our roles.
- The infrastructure and equipment needs, such as facilities, apparatus, equipment, communications systems, prevention and public education props, etc.
- Partnerships, relationships and politics necessary for us to function as a community leader and participant in a variety of settings and ways.
- Members and system support is critical if we expect our human resources to function in a positive, productive, healthy and safe environment. To a large extent, this dictates the strength and effectiveness of every leg and brace of the stool.
This stool represents the investment a community makes in the current and future effectiveness of the fire department in meeting its mission. A strong foundation will support the full weight of the community and the mission. A weak or damaged part of the stool effects its overall strength and usefulness.
As our emergency response systems continue to expand into a full range of services, our prevention, public education, and support programs must be modified to do the same. We shouldn't reduce our emphasis on fire safety, rather, we should increase our emphasis on the life safety piece of the all risk education equation. We shouldn't decrease our capabilities in firefighting, rather, we should increase our capabilities in the full range of emergency response skills, services, and resources. It isn't an either/or choice - it's a system.
A systems approach designed to address and support the whole mission: prevention, all-risk public education and emergency response - preventing or responding to our customers' "worst day of their lives" in a way that exceeds their expectations and needs every time. If the customers were our own loved ones, that's the minimum we would expect and accept.
I'm proud every time the Mesa Fire Department does this - and what's really nice is that our members do it every day. So do many other fire service members and fire departments. The fire service is a special calling, with a special set of responsibilities, and a very special relationship with our customers and our communities as a whole. Building and maintaining this stool is hard work, but I know we're up to it. Let's keep going.
Dennis Compton, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire chief in Mesa, AZ. He previously served as assistant fire chief in the Phoenix Fire Department. During a career that spans almost 30 years, Compton has been involved in many fire service and civic organizations, and is a well-known speaker and author. He is the immediate past chair of the Executive Board of the International fire service Training Association (IFSTA) and is the vice chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute's National Advisory Committee.