Chief's Forum Advocates Adaptation

How does one learn to be a fire chief... maybe with a little less road rash? How should we react when the world changes around us?

These were among the questions posed at Firehouse Expo's Fire Chiefs Forum last Friday in Baltimore, Md. Officials gathered for an intimate discussion on current challenges in the fire service, and a theme emerged: leaders need to not only accept change, but embrace it.

The event was moderated by retired fire chief Alan Brunacini of Phoenix, Ariz., with featured panelists including D.C. Fire Chief Dennis Rubin and Baltimore Fire Chief Jim Clack. Discussion topics included EMS, new media, and the evolving role of the fire chief from hands-on leader to administrator.

EMS

When it comes to EMS, as Brunacini noted, "'E' stands for 'Everything' so often now."

A number of chiefs at the forum raised familiar concerns about the over-burdened EMS system; how it has become a catch-all for those who "fall through the cracks," amounting to abuse of the system.

However, the panelists took a protective stance on EMS' role in health care and on those populations challenging the system.

"What happens to an organization whose service doesn't meet the customer's needs?" Brunacini asked. "It's interesting that we would say, 'You don't fit our service so you're abusing the system,'" rather than adjusting the system.

Brunacini observed of the fire service, "We can eat an elephant but choke on a gnat."

Rubin weighed in, "I have a hard time calling it abuse when they really have a problem." He shared the story of one "frequent flyer" who became a particular burden on his system. Responders finally took it upon themselves to look for the root of the problem, and discovered that the patient's inhaler had expired years prior and was completely empty. They helped her resolve that and never heard from her again.

Rubin's message was that EMS does need to catch those who fall through the cracks and provide a bridge to appropriate social services. "Psychiatric issues, drugs and alcohol are real problems," he said, and the first step is convincing your local government to invest in solutions.

New Media

Another concern was that almost anything that occurs in public these days may be recorded, often by traffic cameras or citizens with cell phones. Recorded images and video may have legal implications and may circulate endlessly online via the media, social sites and blogs. One example raised was the recent scuffle between an Oklahoma state trooper and a medic; incident recordings made the national news, opened the door for widespread industry reaction and became a resource in the ensuing investigation.

In other anecdotal stories shared, firefighters have been caught providing apparatus crash reports disproven by traffic cam evidence. Lesson: personnel need to take care in their interactions with the public and in written incident reports.

Other "New Media" concerns focused on personnel using social media sites and issues with electronic training and communication.

New Roles, New Skills

The fire service isn't what it used to be, and it requires a somewhat different skill set. "Now, you have to be a people person," Brunacini said, due to EMS and the media.

Clack noted that key requirements for fire chiefs now include writing skills, electronic savvy, and knowledge of budget and politics above operational skills. He pointed toward the example of St. Paul, Minnesota which in 2007 put the city's emergency management chief through rookie school and selected him as fire chief.

The group discussed the impact of the new emergency management field as well as whether fire chiefs are now more empowered to find creative solutions than in the past.

"There's no more exciting time to be a fire chief than today," one participant noted in closing. "The opportunities are endless... and the risks."

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