The "Blue Ribbon Panel" Working To Renew The USFA

FEMA Director James Lee Witt assembled top fire officials with the goal of reviewing the state of federal fire programs. Here are their 34 recommendations, with an introduction by Steve Austin, chairman of the panel.


Conventional wisdom being what it is, getting 13 of the country's fire service groups to agree on anything, let alone a blueprint to fix the United States Fire Administration would be as unwieldy as herding cats. However, conventional wisdom has been wrong for quite a while when it comes to fire...


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Conventional wisdom being what it is, getting 13 of the country's fire service groups to agree on anything, let alone a blueprint to fix the United States Fire Administration would be as unwieldy as herding cats. However, conventional wisdom has been wrong for quite a while when it comes to fire service cooperation. In case you haven't been paying attention, the major fire service groups have quietly gone about the business of working together in order to best represent their members.

You would never know it from reading some accounts in the fire service trade press. That is why when I was contacted by Firehouse® to report on the results of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director James Lee Witt's Blue Ribbon Panel, I agreed to write this article. Firehouse® has a reputation for covering national fire service issues fairly. As chairman of the Blue Ribbon Panel, I am pleased to offer some observations about the report and the process that produced it.

Witt appointed Steve Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, as vice chairman of the panel. Steve is the president of the North American Fire Training Directors. In addition to the training directors (and the International Association of Arson Investigators, which I represent), Witt appointed the following groups:

Congressional Fire Services Institute International Association of Black Professional Firefighters International Association of Fire Chiefs International Association of Fire Fighters International Society of Fire Service Instructors National Association of Hispanic Firefighters National Association of State Fire Marshals National Fire Academy Board of Visitors National Fire Protection Association National Volunteer Fire Council Women in the Fire Service Inc.

Each organization chose its own representative, often the CEO or governmental affairs specialist. The members were seasoned fire service folks, all holding responsible leadership positions. As I looked around the table, eight were active fire and EMS responders.

The committee reviewed over 600 pages of documents. These included a white paper listing the concerns of the National Fire Academy program chairs and a document produced by the employee association. Our goal was to review as much pertinent information as possible.

We met in Washington and by conference call with full support from FEMA upper management. While FEMA has a representative at all meetings, at no time did the director or staff attempt to influence the panel's deliberations. We met with senior management and the fire administrator separately to obtain their viewpoints.

Panel members early on recognized that the sole reason for the panel's existence is because the Fire Administration has serious problems. We reminded ourselves that our job was to look to the future, not rehash the past.

To focus on the mission, we asked Louis J. Amabili, a member of President Nixon's Fire Prevention and Control Commission and an author of America Burning, to speak to the panel. Lou presented the commission's vision of the fire administration. Lou gave the panel a true pearl of wisdom when he said, "The Fire Administration was once the beacon or the headlight for fire safety in America and now has become the taillight."

The panel concluded that there is a broken covenant between the fire programs and the people and institutions they were created to serve. There are three core deficiencies that have undermined the USFA's effectiveness. These are leadership, resource management and communications.

The panel developed 34 recommendations. The recommendations can put the Fire Administration on the right track and restore the USFA to an agency that will be a true advocate for fire protection to the American public and within the federal government.

We urge you to read the report. The Blue Ribbon Panel invites your comments. Responses will be forwarded to Director Witt. If you agree with our analysis, we invite you to endorse the report either as an individual or through a group that represents your interests.

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