Changing Paradigms For The Fire Service And For Training

The evolution in the role of the contemporary fire department that has occurred in recent years is well understood by members of the fire service. Unfortunately, the expanded mission of most contemporary fire departments has not been fully understood and/or comprehended by the fire department's stakeholders.

Perhaps that is because these stakeholders have not taken the time to learn about the expanded roles and responsibilities of their fire departments, or perhaps we, in the fire service, have dropped the ball and not educated those who live in, work in or travel through our fire districts regarding the scope of the services that our organizations deliver. Does your fire department have an extensive public education program? Do you incorporate in your public education initiatives an educational message about the services provided by your fire department?

Throughout my 30 years in the fire service, I have witnessed this evolution in the mission of the contemporary fire department. I have lived through the implementation of advances in emergency medical services, hazardous materials response, vehicle and specialized rescue, and numerous other aspects of our fire department operations that are today considered commonplace. We have come a long way in a "short" 30 years, but our progress has been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

Several years ago we were told of the need for fire departments and other emergency response organizations to prepare for the terrorist threats that we might face. The World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, as well as a number of other less publicized incidents, illuminated the potential for terrorism within our nation. While most of us understood the potential severity of this threat, we perhaps had a comfort level based on a belief that were such events to occur, they would hopefully be infrequent occurrences.

So much for wishful thinking. The events that began on September 11, 2001 have clearly demonstrated vulnerabilities of communities, both large and small, to a variety of terrorist attacks. The horrific and tragic events of recent weeks have caused us to rethink our concept of weapons of mass destruction and to realize that domestic and/or international terrorists can mount their attacks on our communities and thus our nation through the various means described in the terrorism awareness courses that we began to teach several years ago.

For years, advocates of the fire service have advanced the role of the fire service as our nation's domestic defenders as suggested by Congressman Curt Weldon. You will recall that our "fire service" member of Congress also encouraged us to take our case to Washington when he talked about awakening the sleeping giant. We have been and continue to do that; unfortunately those terrorists who would seek to challenge out basic freedoms have recently made our case for us at the local, state and federal levels.

An elected official or member of the public would have had to have been in a coma or sequestered for the past two months, to not realize the role of the contemporary fire service as our nation's first responders to a multitude of emergencies including terrorist attacks and suspected anthrax letters. The events of the past two months must accurately be described as revolutionary.

Fire departments across our nation, whether volunteer, combination or career, have continued their longstanding traditions of always being there for their communities. Our fire departments are there in the best times such as when we participate in the local Memorial Day parade, as well as in the worst of times when we attempt to rescue a trapped child from the upper floors of a burning structure. As bad as those days are, the events of the last two months have taught us the real meaning of a "bad day."

As fire instructors, we have the awesome responsibility, of preparing the members of the fire service, both in and outside of the classroom, to be prepared to effectively, efficiently and safely respond to whatever challenges they may face at the incidents to which they are called. We must be change agents. We must ensure that each and every member of an emergency service organization recognizes the importance of having the necessary training, including as a minimum awareness level training in both hazardous materials and terrorism response.

Since September 11, 2001, I have received numerous requests from local and national media to assess our level of preparedness for responding to acts of terrorism. The public shares these concerns about response preparedness and capabilities. Your department may have already been questioned by the media, the public or elected officials regarding your level of preparedness. Now is the time to be honest with your stakeholders and yourself. If you need additional training, make arrangements to receive it. If you need additional resources, prepare your justification and present your case.

I have also been asked by many fire officers what they can do to enhance their level of readiness. My response to such a question is to objectively examine your organization. What are your organizational strengths and weaknesses? What generic and specific threats do you face? What is your level of confidence that you are prepared to address these threats in an effective and safe manner.

Regardless of how prepared you discover your department is, you must continually strive to become better. This mandate of successful contemporary business organizations must become the battle cry of our nation's emergency response organizations. To do anything less is to fail our stakeholders, including our emergency responders and their families.

I would offer the following suggestions as you ensure the "battle readiness" of your fire department or other emergency response organization to respond to terrorist attacks and other large-scale incidents:

Assess Your Preparedness (Readiness)

  • Be objective
  • Consider generic and specific threats
  • Review existing community emergency response plans
  • Evaluate working relationships with other agencies
  • Evaluate human resources and training
  • Review existing equipment
  • Benchmark with other fire departments

Enhance Your Preparedness (Readiness)

  • Identify training needs
  • Schedule training
  • Enhance multidisciplinary planning initiatives
  • Justify and request needed resources
  • Prepare and submit grant proposals
  • Establish/enhance working relationships with other agencies
  • Prepare for the use of unified command
  • Conduct exercises

Working with Elected Officials

  • Share readiness information
  • Request needed resources and support
  • Involve elected officials
  • Provide them with "ownership" of public safety role
  • Ask for only what you really need
  • Secure assistance in seeking grants

Working with the Media

  • Build positive working relationships
  • Offer up appropriate personnel for interviews
  • Realize that radio and television use short "sound bites"
  • Refer to appropriate sources when you cannot or should not address particular issues
  • Anticipate both easy and difficult questions
  • Realize that their job is to "get the news"

Working with the Public

  • Be patient, realizing that many individuals may approach you with the same question or concern
  • Be prepared to provide information and make referrals as appropriate
  • Take the opportunity to "sell" your fire department and educate the public regarding your mission and the services that you provide
  • Realize that there is a high degree of public concern at this time
  • Identify designated individuals to field questions or concerns from the public

Working with Fire Department Members

  • Ensure that all personnel have current training
  • Require all personnel to have a minimum of hazardous materials and terrorism awareness training
  • Develop and implement operating guidelines for response to suspected terrorist events
  • Ensure that all personnel have and utilize necessary personal protective equipment
  • Emphasize and expect safety in all operations and evolutions
  • Ensure that all officers have the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to ensure the safety of response personnel

Our role, as fire and emergency service instructors, has changed in the past two months. As we face the challenges of war and homeland security, we are called to be the "drill instructors" that are the backbone of any successful army. Our military has recognized the importance of the drill instructor for many years, it is time that we do likewise. Our nation's domestic defenders and the communities and citizens that they protect deserve nothing less.