The "Blue Ribbon Panel" Working To Renew The USFA

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.

The Blue Ribbon Panel is positive proof that the professional associations that represent fire service people are working together to make a difference. Next time you hear someone go negative, tell them you know better.

Recommendations About Mission

1. The panel endorses the mission statements of both FEMA and the USFA regarding their sensitivity to the nation's fire problem, but suggests that the National Fire Academy develop a mission statement that more accurately describes the importance of its training and educational activities for the fire service and the resulting benefits for the public.

1.1. FEMA, USFA and NFA should revisit their mission statements regularly to ensure that each is responding to the fire problems to the best of their capabilities and that the concerns of their fire service and allied professional constituents remain prominent.

2. Demonstrate the importance of fire safety by renaming FEMA the Fire and Emergency Management Agency.

2.1. Use the occasion of the name change to demonstrate loyalty and commitment to the fire service community and promote fire issues to the public.

Recommendation About Organizational Structure

3. The panel recommends that the reporting relationships between the United States fire administrator, the deputy fire administrator and the superintendent of the National Fire Academy be redefined so that these working relationships can be improved in terms of empowerment, delegation of authority, and accountability.

3.1. Determine if the current system of the superintendent and the deputy administrator both reporting directly to the fire administrator is one which best encourages the flow of information toward positive and productive outcomes.

3.2. USFA should demonstrate a willingness and eagerness to reconfigure reporting relationships if they are not understood or not working efficiently.

Recommendations About Leadership and Management

4. The current United States Fire Administration does not have the confidence of the fire and emergency services. The panel recommends that the FEMA director and/or the fire administrator take the following actions:

4.1. Demonstrate a higher and sustained level of understanding about fire and emergency services issues through an advocacy at the federal level of those challenges facing fire and EMS managers through vigorous justification of USFA program goals and objectives.

4.2. Increase visibility at emergencies where a federal response is necessary to demonstrate that fire and EMS personnel are America's first responders to all hazards and as such deserve the same interest and funding that FEMA has shown to the emergency management sector.

4.3. Relocate the office of the USFA administration, including staff, to the Washington headquarters of FEMA in order to be a constant advocate of fire issues, especially during budget and resource negotiations. The panel suggests, however, that the staff of the National Fire Academy remain in Emmitsburg.

4.4. FEMA must develop a job description for the U.S. fire administrator which lists the qualities and attributes of an effective administrator, including performance objectives and standards. It is strongly encouraged that these attributes include demonstrated professional ability in fire and rescue disciplines.

5. The leadership and organizational culture of FEMA must change by altering its views of fire and EMS issues in order to make programmatic changes which reflect the real impact of fire related hazards and emergencies (in terms of deaths, injuries and impact on the American economy) which greatly exceed those associated with large-scale natural disasters.

5.1. Include USFA administrator in decisions of all FEMA's directorates as USFA fire and EMS customers represent those who are first responders in the field to FEMA's initiatives.

5.2. Create opportunities for interaction between the federal, state and local emergency managers and fire service managers to coordinate activities regarding risk identification and mitigation efforts.

5.3. Partner with the fire service in supporting changes on the level of those directed toward the emergency managers: make FIRE a part of FEMA through increasing the role of the USFA in FEMA.

5.4. Recognize that the fire service model of risk reduction through prevention efforts has created the finest emergency services infrastructure in the world and use these professionals to further the work of FEMA through such initiatives as Project Impact.

6. The Blue Ribbon Panel urges the fire administrator to carefully consider the recommendations made by the program chairs of the National Fire Academy and Local 1983 of FEMA regarding the U.S. Fire Administration and its four program areas. It is recommended that management participate in ongoing dialog to enhance positive labor/management relations.

Recommendations About Funding And Resource Management

7. Increase USFA support (allocate resources and staffing) for new NFIRS Version 5 as follows:

7.1. Increase USFA assistance and quality assurance to new and existing NFIRS states; support would include installing and testing new systems in each state and training state coordinators as well as providing support to state and local users as they convert to Version 5.

7.2. USFA would process and quality-control incoming data, generate state reports, and compile and distribute the annual database.

7.3. Increase budget for NFIRS support at USFA by $2 million per year.

7.4. Develop periodic grants to states to upgrade computer equipment to handle the new NFIRS Version 5 and to enhance analysis capabilities at an overall funding level of $200,000 per year for the next several fiscal years to the designated state fire authority. Ten to twenty thousand dollar grants per state would upgrade all NFIRS states over a five-year period of conversion.

7.5. USFA should outsource, when appropriate, most fire data analysis activities now carried out by USFA to describe the overall U.S. fire problem (e.g. "A Profile of Fire in the United States") and any special fire analysis or fire report projects. This should be done through cooperative agreements, contracts or grants at a level of $250,000 per year.

7.6. Regulations should be introduced requiring all states to report using the NFIRS system within five years. Future participation in USFA programs would be tied to participation in the NFIRS reporting system.

7.7. The panel recommends that an additional $2 million per year be put toward state grants for the marketing, training, and creation of incentives to ensure 100% NFIRS 5 participation.

8. USFA should focus on a number of critical R&D tasks identified in Public Law 93-498, which are as important today as they were in 1974 and still have not been fully addressed. These include:

8.1. The role of USFA as a proactive leader, helping set the direction for the entire national fire safety R&D agenda, in partnership with other research organizations and major users of research.

8.2. Invest much more heavily in technology R&D programs to support the fire safety community in the areas of:

  1. Firefighter health and safety.
  2. Advanced information technologies for fire management.
  3. Advanced technologies for fire prevention and protection.
  4. Advanced firefighting technologies.
  5. Burn care and rehabilitation.

8.3. Provide leadership for the fire safety community in the transition to performance-based codes and standards. This role could include:

  1. Financial support of fire service participation in R&D activities of voluntary codes and standards committees.
  2. Provide leadership and financial support to public and private academic institutions in support of degree and continuing education programs to equip fire safety professionals for active participation in use of performance-based regulations and standards.
  3. Support of research needed to address public interest concerns/issues associated with such codes and standards.

9. USFA should make effective use of the capabilities in the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST), Department of Commerce, Consumer Product Safety Commission, and other public and private organizations for R&D aimed at advancing the state of the art of fire safety in the nation.

10. The panel recommends funding $10 million per year to carry out these R&D initiatives plus an additional $2 million for research grants to academic and other allied institutions.

11. It is recommended that the USFA increase its awareness of how diversity and multi-culturalism affect the fire problem through redirecting current resources and new funding toward specific at-risk populations.

11.1. Partner with representatives of cultural/ethnic groups to seek input and understanding regarding public education effectiveness and to develop new pathways for delivery.

11.2. Develop relationships with minority-owned corporations to co-develop fire prevention campaigns designed specifically for at-risk groups.

12. The panel recommends that an additional $4 million per year be directed to expand outreach efforts on community hazard assessment and at-risk groups, including technical aid to fire departments serving populations under 2,500.

13. Create a local matching funds federal grant program designed to fund the hiring of public fire and safety educators over the next three years with a focus on states with a documented high life loss history.

14. The panel recommends that the NFA budget be increased in order to increase student capacity by 50%, to improve off-campus course delivery, and to ensure that all first responders have access to the excellent courses that have been and can be developed by the staff of the National Fire Academy through continuation of the student manual support and utilization of the resources at the Learning Resource Center (LRC).

14.1. The panel recommends that an additional 110 rooms (plus supporting facilities) be made available for resident program students of the NFA. This can be accomplished by a capital construction project or relocate EMI to another FEMA facility, thereby freeing up space at the NFA for additional students.

14.2. To increase the student capacity by 50%, an additional $2.5 million in operating funds is required for additional faculty and staff, course development and delivery costs, and increased student stipends.

14.3. Increased funding for student manual support be maintained for at least five years as the programs are handed off to the various states.

14.4. The Learning Resource Cen-ter (LRC) be staffed and open for reasonable hours (including evenings) whenever students are on campus.

14.5. The NFA shall recognize the benefits of having a diverse student population participate in their courses. Therefore, the admission process of the NFA should be strengthened to enhance the numbers of women and ethnic group members participating in the programs.

15. The academy should consider a very limited time when basic courses (i.e., arson investigation, inspection practices, basic hazmat, etc.) are taught at Emmits-burg. These should be handed off to the states, with residential courses focusing on executive-level management, advanced technology and the introduction of new ideas into the fire service.

16.State and local fire training programs are an integral component of the training and educational services of the NFA. In order to maintain and strengthen this important partnership, grants to support state fire training programs need to be improved. The grants should be in the $100,000 range per state, as follows:

  • $75,000 - To deliver NFA courses at the state level, including program materials and delivery costs.
  • $25,000 - (.5 FTE) to coordinate delivery of NFA programs at the state and local level and to provide for the management and accountability of NFA courses.

17. The panel recommends to the director that he evaluate policies affecting the Board of Visitors to ensure that it is permitted to operate as it was intended.

17.1. Funds for the BOV travel and meetings should be separate from the salary and expenses of the USFA/NFA.

17.2. The staff person assigned to work with the BOV should be a staff member from the FEMA director's office and not from USFA.

17.3. The board should be funded for a minimum of four meetings per year.

Recommendations About Planning

18. The panel recommends that planning within FEMA more substantively incorporate the goals and objectives of the fire and EMS constituencies in this country, recognizing the fire/EMS system as the primary mitigation and prevention infrastructure in service to the citizens.

19. As a starting point for revitalization, it is strongly recommended that the USFA develop a strategic plan utilizing valuable stakeholder contributions that have already been made and others which will be sought directly.

20. Effective strategic plans have to be realistic, measurable and achievable. USFA should ensure that it can meet the two goals established in FEMA's strategic plan regarding the fire programs.

21. The USFA needs to be an active partner and have a proactive role in the National Disaster & Terrorism Response effort, and that $15 million be appropriated for this effort.

Recommendations About Personnel And Human Resources Issues

22. The panel recommends that staffing levels at the NFA be established at the appropriate level, through the adoption of the budget recommendations made in this report, and in a separate study regarding NFA.

23. The panel recommends that an interested-based conflict resolution system be developed and used by these three groups during points of impasse and during all negotiations about the future concerning mission and resource allocation.

24. The panel recommends that the staff of the USFA develop a decision- making model which is well-integrated throughout the fire administration.

25. Train staff at all levels to be effective managers in skills they identify as critical to job performance (e.g. teamwork, empowerment, etc.)

Recommendations About Advocacy And Partnership

26. The panel recommends that the USFA continue outreach programs for the dissemination of information about fire problems in the United States and that it strive to ensure that all data is current and presented in user-friendly format. The USFA should utilize existing public and private resources wherever possible through partnership agreements to achieve this objective.

27. The panel urges the USFA and NFA to consider the ramifications of what it does for its institutional partners and provide increased support for "Degrees at a Distance" and other fire service college curriculum programs.

28. At all points, FEMA must inject a consciousness of the fire problem into its programs and outward into federal government policy whenever appropriate, especially in the area of health care, occupational safety and health, DOT standards, etc. Congressional liaison from FEMA to Congress must develop a feedback loop to the fire service.

29. To promote loyalty and demonstrate advocacy, the panel urges that the FEMA director sponsor an annual meeting of representative stakeholder interests regarding fire concerns and issues similar to that conducted on behalf of the emergency management community.

30. The panel recommends that FEMA/USFA develop fellowships for senior fire officers at the local level whereby they would serve under the highest levels of FEMA/USFA administrators for six months. This would strengthen the connections between FEMA/USFA to fire leaders in the field. In turn, this would begin to build a cadre of fire officers across the nation with intimate working knowledge of the federal fire programs.

31. The panel urges the creation of a federal grant/local matching programs to enable fire/EMS departments to acquire training resources, new technology, specialized equipment and safety resources.

32. Ensure when there is a major fire, large-scale explosion or similar event that warrants national media coverage that the USFA be a more visible advocate, provide commentary, provide data, interpretation and analysis in support of local fire authorities.

33. Recognize that the study of the U.S. fire problem could benefit from examining success models elsewhere and that the USFA should have a major role in brokering an international flow of information on such issues as technology development, training initiatives, and cultural aspects of fire prevention.

Recommendation About The Future

34. As a starting point for rebuilding, the panel requests that the director, Congress and the President create a commission to continue the work begun in America Burning. Due to the continuing seriousness of the U.S. fire problem, the panel suggests this body begin its work in Washington in June 1999 and complete its work in 18 months.