Fully Involved

Oct. 19, 2009
October is the fire prevention month. In my mind, the most significant event that undoubtedly will have a direct positive impact on fire prevention and in addressing the fire problem in our country took place back at the end of August. The ceremonial swearing in of the newly appointed United States Fire Administrator, Kelvin Cochran, was one of the highlights of Fire-Rescue International (FRI) in Dallas.

October is the fire prevention month. In my mind, the most significant event that undoubtedly will have a direct positive impact on fire prevention and in addressing the fire problem in our country took place back at the end of August. The ceremonial swearing in of the newly appointed United States Fire Administrator, Kelvin Cochran, was one of the highlights of Fire-Rescue International (FRI) in Dallas. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate made presentations at that event.

No doubt the fact that the leadership of the FEMA and the U.S. Fire Administration is in the competent hands of two of our own peers is great news and provides a sense of pride. It is also comforting to know that there will be continuity to the admirable work that David Paulison and Greg Cade performed in those positions under the previous administration.

I truly enjoyed Craig Fugate's pragmatic views on emergency management in his speech. He talked about teamwork and said that "FEMA is not the team; it's part of the team. You're the team." He asked "why are we not the leader in fire safety amongst the industrial nations?" And then underlined the importance of the USFA in addressing the fire problem in our country and made the commitment that he will "put the fire back in the USFA."

Hearing that was indeed great. To me that is a sign of the visionary leadership that we need at the helm of the FEMA. Was that the politician in him talking? I don't think so. I think it was the fire service leadership in him that came out loud and clear.

In all my articles, I heavily emphasize the important role of the USFA. Because, in my mind, the USFA is in a sense our incident commander (IC) in addressing the fire problem in our country. Yet, as you all know quite well, not even the best and the most experienced of the ICs can successfully address the problems without having developed a solid incident action plan (IAP), and of course not without having the adequate resources necessary to accomplish the tasks.

That being said, in my mind "putting the fire back in the USFA" dictates that we actually "put our money where our mouth is."

Last year, in my article titled "Aim Higher", I focused on this very specific issue. In it, I explained the history and the legislative efforts (the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, Public Law 93-498) that finally led to the establishment of the USFA. I strongly underlined the importance of the responsibilities and the leadership role of the USFA in addressing our country's fire problem. And, I pointed out to the historic lack of funding and the inadequacy of the resources that has plagued the USFA ever since its inception.

A strong and vibrant USFA will benefit the fire service in better serving our communities across the land. And that of course requires a strong leadership at the helm of the USFA, especially during these turbulent times of economic hardship and uncertainty.

Many months ago, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) had scheduled then Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran to be their keynote speaker at FRI. It was indeed even a higher pleasure to listen to our newly appointed U.S. Fire Administrator, Kelvin Cochran, deliver his presentation titled "Becoming Fully Involved."

Kelvin's mastery and passion for the subject poured out on the stage. The following excerpts from his speech are inadequate in truly describing his powerful delivery; yet provide some insight to the vision, the organizational mission and the direction he intend to lead the USFA. He explained:

"Fully involved means a structure that's fully involved in fire. I use that analogy as it relates to a fire department or fire service organization where the members, the sections, the organizational units and shifts and divisions of labor are the rooms and the contents; the organization as a whole is the house, and to be successful, to navigate the tough times, the entire organization, its units and its members must be fully involved.... It takes more than just the fire chief to lead through tough times; so that's the essence behind the analogy of fully involved and how it fits in the context of the presentation.... It goes back to this concept of one person can make a difference. In every rank, every organizational unit, in every fire station and each battalion and section, there are members of our organization that have not been discouraged by the difficult times, because they realize that part of the history of our profession is actually being resilient during difficult times. And I think that, in this context, one person can make a difference, and I use those individuals that are spread throughout our organization sorta in the analogy of wood."

And he then explained the definitions, and in a way the organizational synonyms of the different types wood like the "petrified wood," "dead wood," and the "cured wood." He said that the "cured wood" is the wood that is processed to its prime capacity to burn. He explained "the cured wood in our organization is mostly senior members or members of rank who have a reputation and credibility for hope and optimism, but have been discouraged somehow because of the overwhelming responsibilities we have as leaders. And once the kindling is connected to the cured wood in our organization, then the fire will actually start and build momentum."

Chief Cochran's analogy was quite interesting and accurate from the organizational perspective. Clearly all organizations have these various types of "woods". In my mind though, USFA is filled mostly with "cured wood". And Kelvin's leadership can indeed be the right kindling to set a blaze the USFA. USFA can and must be the leader in addressing our country's fire problems. And that is not just me saying it. That was the exact role that was assigned to the USFA by the Congress back in 1974.

Earlier this year, in my article titled "In Search Of" I focused on the importance of appointing a strong leader to serve at the helm of the USFA and wrote "The next USFA Administrator must be an accomplished fire service leader that is well-versed in the fundamental principles of the organization that he/she will lead, and must have demonstrated deep commitment to the core founding values and missions of the USFA, as was originally outlined in Public Law 93-498, the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974." I was hoping that we get just such a person at the USFA's helm.

Chief Cochran's speech was impressive and gave us a good glimpse of his general views and his leadership style. But then I was more interested to see what he would say specifically about the USFA and its priorities in addressing the fire problem in our country. I must admit, my friends, that I was even more impressed when I read his interviews that he did afterward with the Firehouse and FireRescue magazines.

Just as a good IC would do before taking over the command, it appears that Chief Cochran has done an all around initial size-up to get a good snapshot of the existing fireground conditions, before developing his tactical plans. Take a look at what he said in his interview with the FireRescue Magazine, and see if I am right to have faith in him; or I am being too overly optimistic.

"First and foremost, I think it's still incumbent on the USFA and the administrator to really focus on how the organization was born in the first place, and that is out of the tremendous fire problem in the United States of America. We were experiencing a tremendous rate of deaths to citizens and property loss. Out of "America Burning," the USFA was ultimately born to reduce fires and injuries and deaths related to fires. So I think that's still a part of our mission. Even though we've made great strides in reducing those numbers, we should not be satisfied with our success and should continue to focus on high-risk areas, where there is still a tremendous loss of life and injuries, which are primarily senior citizens above 50, children under 5 and in poverty-stricken minority communities. And I just believe that we should continue to use programs that we've used in the past that were successful but evaluate them to see if there are new innovations that can make them better and then we need to market and target those areas and be a little more assertive in getting public education and life-saving education right to those vulnerable citizens in our country. So I think life safety and fire prevention is still a primary part of our mission, and they will still be a high priority for me as U.S. Fire Administrator."

That excerpt is quite indicative that Kelvin has done his homework well and has researched the roots of the problem, before stepping up to the plate and accepting the honor to serve as our country's fire chief. In my mind, that shows that he doesn't just want to serve a term in that office; it shows that he has his heart in it and wants to do real good.

I think that he sees that even though in general, the USFA is on the right direction; yet it still has strayed from the original path that the Congress had outlined for it. And he wants to change that. He knows quite well that having an in-depth assessment, is the very first step an organization needs to take to figure out where they are along their way in accomplishing their mission, and then to identify the course correction measures that might be required. In my mind, the excerpts from Chief Cochran's interview with the Firehouse at the FRI are indicative of just such approach.

"We need to evaluate USFA's involvement and accomplishments as related to America Burning and America Burning Revisited," he continued. "We need to develop a report card to measure our performance against these recommendations and see what we have yet to accomplish.

The initial America Burning report was issued in 1974 and focused attention on the nation's fire problem, resulting in the creation of the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy.

Additionally, Cochran is looking to re-evaluate life safety initiatives to determine whether the USFA is being assertive enough in the mission to save civilian lives and property. While these losses have been going down, Cochran wants to make sure every effort is being made in fire prevention and fire safety education, and the agency hasn't simply become comfortable with the pace of reductions."

I believe that developing that "report card to measure our performance" is a great first step. There is absolutely nothing wrong with getting a "report card", even if the grades might not be something to brag about. That is of course if our intent is to improve in future. That is a great assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, and an excellent tool to help us develop a good strategy to address our weaknesses.

Look at it this way. Such a "report card", would be like an annual physical check up. Fear of finding something wrong should not be a deterrent. Instead, getting a clean bill of health, or at the least finding out what the problem might be, and then take appropriate measures to address it, before it gets out of hand, should be the real motivator, right?

Here is my two cents. I believe Chief Cochran is right to ask for a "report card". And, I think to be of any value at all that "report card" must be as independent, unbiased, and truthful as possible. I think that once and for all, we need the federal government to take an independent, in-depth look at the fire problem in our country, and evaluate our performance during the past 35 years. Worst is, just like a post-incident critique, we recognize our strengths and weaknesses, and learn valuable lessons, with the hope of doing better in future, right? What do we have to lose, after all?

In my article titled "Aim Higher" last year, I further elaborated on this concept, with the hope that it could be of value in providing the essential funding and resources necessary for reviving the USFA and strengthening its position to serve at the leadership of the fire service as it was intended to. My suggestion was:

"Let's get the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), or the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to do an independent evaluation of our efforts in implementation of the "Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974", Public Law 93-498 (PL 93-498)... Such an independent "Review" can be extremely beneficial in helping an agency better accomplish its mission. Although "Reviews" by their very nature must look back over time, but their outcomes are essentially future-focused....We must strengthen the USFA, if we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem in our country. Our professional obligation and our patriotic duty, demand that we acknowledge the true magnitude of the total cost of fire in our country. We need to provide our national Incident Commander with adequate resources to accomplish the tasks. If we are indeed serious about addressing the fire problem, then we can't afford being complacent and settle for the current insufficient funding levels for the USFA."

Why did I suggest an official federal "review" of the USFA? Because, I believe that such a review will clearly point to the chronic shortages of staff and resources that has plagued the USFA ever since its inception. After all, if you recall it was the Congressional "investigation" that helped revive FEMA in the aftermath of their failures four years ago, wasn't it? And believe you me that an "investigation" is a heck of lot more serious than a mere "review". So why wouldn't a simple "review" help revive the USFA?

Some might think that being below the radar might be good in the federal government. And, that bringing undue extra attention to any agency and putting them under the spotlight, could only be trouble and nothing good ever comes out of it, and you might end up losing more than gaining any.

There is a certain awkward logic to that. Then if for whatever reasons we might believe that the stigma associated with having an official federal "review" is not going to be quite helpful to our cause, then at the very least, let's get an independent private sector think-tank firm do the review and provide us with an unbiased "report card". Our military does it regularly. So can we.

Other federal agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) have a well defined process to perform a Development Impact Assessment (DIA) on the many projects that they fund in the various countries all around the world. Wouldn't it make sense to do the same here at home for our own beloved USFA? If it works well for the third world countries, then why not for us here at home? Wouldn't such an assessment give us a clear understanding of where we actually are with respect to our original goals and what we have been able to accomplish and the things we haven't? Couldn't such an in-depth analysis serve as our guiding light to perform better in the future? My friends, such an assessment is not about pinpointing failures or placement of blames. It is merely about improving our performance and trying to do better in the future.

Get one of the major think-tank organizations such as the Rand corporation (or any other independent organizations who we deem to have the expertise and yet are not related in any way, shape or form to the fire service) to perform an in-depth analysis and develop that "report card."

Undoubtedly, there are plenty of experts and national organizations such as NFPA, IAFC, IAFF, etc. that could do an excellent job on this "review". But then my reason for suggesting the think-tank experts not having links to the fire service was, that there are no financial or other organizational ties that could be perceived by anyone as being biased.

I believe that such a "review" could serve Chief Cochran much more than the "report card" that he seeks. Knowing the roots of the problem and recognizing the exact reasons for the bad grades in the student's "report card", allows the educator to seek fundamental solutions to improving the student's grades. In this review, USFA might receive an average grade since we not have been able to accomplish all the goals set in the America Burning Report series, and that would show on the "report card". But, the "review" though, would go much further than that and could explain the very reasons for the poor grade; most importantly systematical lack of funding and resources.

I might be an optimist at heart, or "cured wood" as Kelvin might say. But, knowing his past performance serving on the IAFC Board, listening to his speech at the FRI, and most importantly reading his interviews and learning about his thoughts and his game plans for the USFA, I feel confident that he will actually walk the talk and serve our country well as our fire chief.

Blaze the trail Chief Cochran. Be the kindling for all the "cured woods" around the country that for decades have not given up the hope and waited optimistically for the USFA to rise up to the prominence as was originally intended by the Congress 35 years ago. No time to waste on the "dead wood" and the "petrified wood," get us all "fully involved."

AZARANG (OZZIE) MIRKHAH P.E., CBO, EFO, CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is the Fire Protection Engineer for the City of Las Vegas Department of Fire & Rescue. Ozzie served on the national NFPA 13 Technical Committee for Sprinkler System Discharge Design Criteria and serves on the IAFC Fire Life Safety Section Board of Directors. He was the first recipient of the IAFC's Excellence in Fire and Life Safety Award in 2007. To read Ozzie's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. Ozzie has participated in two Radio@Firehouse podcasts: Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed and Fire Marshal's Corner. You can reach Ozzie by e-mail at [email protected].

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