America's Fire Service Needs to Steer Its Destiny

BALTIMORE -- While America's fire service is ahead of other public safety entities when it comes to incident command structure, this is no time to sit back and rest.

Retired Phoenix Chief Alan Brunacini said within three minutes after arriving at the scene of a major incident, the commander should have a size-up completed and a plan of action. He made the comments during a panel discussion at Firehouse Expo in Baltimore.

Brunacini, known for his tell-it-like-it-is attitude, said if it were up to him, the closest unit in every community would respond to an incident. Jealousy and turf wars need to be put aside.

Buffalo Fire Commissioner Mike Lombardo said the fire service is in charge of its own destiny, and urged the crowd to step up to the challenge. It angers him that some politicians have chosen chiefs who were never firefighters, a practice not seen in any other city position.

"...Make sure we are in control of the fire service.."

Lombardo said it still puzzles and angers him at those who claim that "fire is a local problem," Although his department is short 174 personnel, he is not eligible for SAFER funds because they cannot be used to defray costs of existing positions.

He said city officials may take another position if they faced criminal liability in the event of a firefighter or civilian death, a measure recently passed in Canada.

Atlanta Chief Dennis Rubin, whose department also is facing similar staffing problems, said there has to be a better way to pay for firefighters. He questioned if outsiders really understand the importance of having enough trained people to do the job.

The three fire service experts also discussed standards, and the need for firefighters to be represented on committees that set the rules. Manufacturers should not be left alone to suggest recommendations.

Lombardo said he knows of no other industry where the people who sell the equipment are making the decisions.

On another issue, Rubin spoke of the importance of firefighters changing its culture to embrace crew resource management. The initiative involves a true team approach with everyone encouraged to share an option or opinion.

He related a story about a conversation between pilot and officer aboard an aircraft. A warning light indicated part of the landing gear was not locked in position. On several occasions, the co-pilot was overheard saying that the plane was running out of fuel. But, his warning was never heeded.

Rubin said allowing everyone to have input will eliminate more chances of human error.

Training also should never ever stop, and firefighters' lives depend on it. Brunacini said it's imperative that chiefs lead by example, and demand their crews are ready for the fight.

Rubin and the others also said it's important to develop a good, working relationship with the media. Keeping them informed, and allowing them access are essential.