Three Critical Issues On Fire Service's Agenda

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There is always a lot going on at the national, state and local levels of government that impact the fire service community. So far, this summer has been no exception. In researching some issues that are important, but rarely make the headlines, I found several that I think you may be interested in. I’m going to use my column this month to briefly cover three of them.

Communications systems

In my May 2013 column, “Fire Chiefs Confront Our Biggest Challenges,” I discussed the current need in many parts of the country to repair, replace or upgrade the infrastructure of fire departments. For the past several years, the state of the economy has delayed or prevented major expenditures for apparatus, equipment, facilities and communications systems.

Playing catch-up with major capital expenditures will not be easy, but it is necessary. One example relates to the status of the fire department communications system in one of the 40 largest cities in the U.S. This particular system provides dispatch services for about a half-dozen fire departments, in addition to its own. Unbelievably, this dispatch center operates on only one power grid, and the power backup systems are insufficient. In addition, the current radio infrastructure does not accommodate some emergency communications needs between this system and other communications systems in this major metropolitan area – even though the agencies operate together at emergency scenes daily.

This is not a new problem for this critical piece of infrastructure, and it presents a significant safety risk for those communities that rely on this system for emergency dispatch services and for the firefighters who depend on the system to communicate with each other while working in hazard zones.

Following the tragic terrorist attacks that took place on 9/11, governments at all levels said that strengthening our communications systems was a need of the highest priority. The economy since 2007 has certainly slowed down the financial capability to address the shortcomings of some communications systems, but it has not made the problems with those systems go away. For elected officials to continue to roll the dice on these types of problems, whether in this specific system or in similar systems that may exist in other cities, is a failure of leadership. Like so many things in government, the need is practical and operational, but getting to a solution is political.

Public Safety Officers Benefit (PSOB) program

In May 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice hosted a meeting in Washington, DC with a number of its partner organizations. The purpose of the meeting was to review a number of changes to the PSOB program that have already been made – or are planned for implementation in the not-so-distant future. Attending the meeting from the fire service were representatives from the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF), International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) and Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). The changes that will be forthcoming are the result of suggestions received by the Justice Department from these fire service organizations and other stakeholders concerning certain aspects of the administration of the PSOB program.

If fully implemented, the changes would affect at least 15 areas of concern, some of which are major. It has been the work of the previously mentioned stakeholder organizations that brought these issues to light and helped to create solutions. This package of changes (when fully implemented) shows the importance of maintaining ongoing (positive) working partnerships with government agencies like the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Justice Department and so many others. This is another clear example of achieving what are somewhat political solutions to practical and operational management problems. In this case, these efforts end up being hugely important to members of the fire service who die or are totally disabled in the line of duty as well as their families.

Recommended reading

I write and speak often about the important role of labor/management relations in the success of fire departments and the fire service in general. Everything the fire department (and the fire service in general) wants to do is impacted by the ability of labor and management to plan together, resolve problems together, jointly address service delivery and support issues that are geared to maintaining the safety of the community and the members of the department, and use their individual and collective influence for the betterment of the fire service.

In systems where this works effectively, it is truly a beautiful and powerful thing to watch. But in systems where these relationships are dysfunctional, we continually call air strikes in on ourselves. The fire service has more than enough political enemies and challenges right now to keep us busy; we simply don’t need to spend our valuable time and energy constantly fighting with each other.

A friend, Bryan Jeffries, recently finished a book titled Fire Service Labor Management Relations: A Practitioner’s Guide. There are only a few books on the market that address fire service labor/management relations specifically, and this is now one of them. It’s worth a read and you can find out where to obtain it by emailing bryan.n.jeffries@gmail.com.

Conclusion

Most of what the fire service achieves at the national, state and local levels of government is impacted significantly by politics. Whether it is an infrastructure need like a communications system, a critical benefit like the PSOB program or realizing the importance of functional labor/management relations, they all have politics at their base and it is political competence that often dictates overall organizational effectiveness.

These three examples may not be found in our fire service headlines, but they are important and we should be aware of their existence.

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