Talking with People: Yes, It's That Easy

Current economic difficulties are negatively impacting the fire service in many ways. Today, governmental managers can do things to the fire service that five or 10 years ago would have been unthinkable – publicly questioning and even attacking fire...


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Current economic difficulties are negatively impacting the fire service in many ways. Today, governmental managers can do things to the fire service that five or 10 years ago would have been unthinkable – publicly questioning and even attacking fire department budgets and in some cases even swaying public opinion against the fire service.

Can you blame the citizens? They are economically paralyzed with fear. Anyone who fears for their family’s safety will attack anything to protect them. It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; when a person’s basic physiologic needs – food, water, shelter – are not satisfied or are threatened, that person will do anything to survive. Today, this could include letting cuts be made to their local fire stations and departments. They don’t see fire, or even injury, as a threat to their physiological needs because they perceive that it will never happen to them.

Who is to blame for this? We are. For far too long, we have sat behind our station doors and we have been the quiet, modest heroes who innocently boast, “No big deal, ma’am/sir, just routine and doing my job,” for so long that our public does not fear fire. They fear terrorism, they fear natural disasters, they fear crime and they fear losing their jobs, their ability to pay for their homes and their ability to provide for their families. But they do not fear fire.

For the record, I fully support NFPA 1710 and 1720, the standards that cover the organization and deployment of career and volunteer fire department resources. I believe in strong staffing because we will always have fires, and I believe in strong training programs because our firefighters must be safe, efficient and modernized when those flames do spark. I am in no way suggesting taking anything away from suppression and operations. I am suggesting that we do the most with what our departments have and continue to increase our prevention programs, even in this difficult financial time; while at the same time showing the value we provide to our communities every day.

“Management by spreadsheet”

“How can you prove what you have prevented if it never happened?” is a question prevention firefighters have been asking for years. But now, as the bean counters examine our budgets, the economic situation has produced another element – “management by spreadsheet.” Numbers on a government document supposedly tell government officials where efficiency and waste are present, what programs need to be expanded or reduced and what needs to be eliminated. In many places, one target is people they perceive as expendable “administrative” personnel – including prevention staff.

In response to “management by spreadsheet” and related economic justifications, key terms have come into the fire prevention/public education arena, such as “process objectives,” “impact studies,” “quantitative and qualitative measurements,” “responding variables” or “formulation of a testable hypothesis.” These are all good tools and methods if you have the resources and budget to perform them. I am not attempting to marginalize or discourage any statistical or scientific approach to prevention. However, 79% of our nation’s fire departments are volunteer and most probably do not have the resources to conduct detailed studies and evaluations, and I believe most of the others have one- or two-person prevention “divisions” that barely have enough time to conduct programs let alone conduct any in-depth analysis while at the same time trying to keep their programs relevant, effective and interesting.

For these departments that do not have the time, resources or even the knowledge to conduct these studies, here’s a little secret: While those studies and evaluations are useful and can help, they are not needed for a successful prevention program. You want an evaluation? How about a steady decrease in fires, accidental injuries or other community hazards you have been addressing since you “blindly and unscientifically” implemented your program? Just because no scientific or analytical process was used, does that mean your program cannot demonstrate a success or has no value?

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