USFA Official: Fire Service Must Adapt to Change

Ken Farmer, chief of the USFA's Prevention and Leadership Development Branch, spoke to attendees at the opening of the VCOS symposium Friday morning in Clearwater, Fla.


The world is changing very quickly and one USFA official says the fire service has to do its best to keep up.

Ken Farmer, chief of the agency's Prevention and Leadership Development Branch spoke to attendees at the opening of the annual symposium of IAFC's VCOS (Volunteer and Combination Officers Section) Friday morning in Clearwater, Fla.

"If you think life is going to be the same as it was 20 years ago, it's not," he said. Things are going to change."

Changes in population, values, culture and technology all will have an impact on the jobs of firefighters across the country, according to the 35-year fire service veteran.

He cited Joel Kotkin's book "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050," saying that suburbia will become the new melting pot instead of the big cities that previously served that role.

"We've got to work to reflect our population," he said, adding that fire departments need to focus on recruiting more minorities.

Aside from demographics, he said that the job too is changing, including the tactics used by fire crews.

"Stop fighting interior fires," he said. "Don't go into those fires anymore. It's not worth it. They build disposable houses these days. Our lives are not disposable."

By fighting fires from the outside, he believes firefighters will be safer and more line of duty deaths will be prevented.

"Every day I drive by the flag. If you've ever been to the National Fire Academy and never seen the flags at half staff, you haven't been there for more than 24 hours."

He said that fire departments must stop merely responding to fires and instead find better ways to make sure they don't occur in the first place.

"We have to shift from the response and the exciting part of fighting fires -- which I love -- and focus on prevention and mitigation," he said. "We have to stop thinking that we are 'cleanup on aisle 7' and start analyzing these incidents."

Prevention is already something many departments are keying in on, and Farmer said that it's paying off.

"Data shows a decrease in fire deaths," he said. "That means that prevention and education -- all of that is kicking in."

Along with a decline in fire deaths, fire-related injuries also are down. A report released by the NFPA showed that such injuries last year were down to the lowest level in 30 years and decreased by 8 percent from 2009.

"How cool is that? That's a pretty amazing statistic," he said. "It also shows demand is down."

Farmer said the fire service is spending much less time fighting fires, and much more time responding to EMS calls.

"We have had a huge focus on EMS at the Fire Academy," he said.

He also said that fire departments will be involved with more wildland fires, natural disasters and civil unrest issues -- such as the current "Occupy Wall Street" protests.

"As a result of those things, we'll have more to deal with."

The way students are taught at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md. is something he believes may look very different in the future.

"I think traditional classes may go away," he said, pointing to how the internet and mobile technology have altered the way people learn. "More and more we live and die by that stuff. The future of learning is changing."

He said that now more than ever, education is needed in the fire service, and that while some will argue otherwise, there's no denying it.

"If you do not have an education -- you're done. I know that sounds bad. You need to at least get a two-year degree that you can get online. It gives you the ability to have better presentation and communication skills so you can deal with people in your community and local government."