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4 challenges firefighters face in 2012

I think there are several issues that will substantively change our response environment in 2012 and beyond

Looking back on 2011 has special meaning for me, since it marks my 20th year in the fire and emergency services.

If I’m being honest, I guess I thought our business would have changed more since I started as a 19-year-old volunteer in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Still, while a lot remains the same, or at least similar, as I reflect on last year I think there are several issues that will substantively change our response environment in 2012 and beyond.

The recession
Duh. As obvious as this one seems, it appears likely that the depth and duration of the current economic crisis will not allow fire departments to go back to, “the way things were” anytime soon; if ever. We can either see this situation as a threat, or an opportunity; it’s our choice.

Green buildings
The strategy and tactics we’ve taught over the past couple of decades do not translate well to buildings with energy efficient windows, photovoltaic panels, vegetative roofs, and other green building features.

We’re behind on adapting to these changes, and I’m afraid that’s going to be a problem if we don’t catch-up soon.

Firefighter health and safety
While I’m hopeful that we’re seeing the start of a downward trend in firefighter fatalities, I remain concerned about our ability to keep our brothers and sisters safe and healthy, especially given the continued budget pressures and changes to the built environment discussed above.

We can’t declare victory too soon; there’s a lot of work that still needs to be done.

Alternative fuel vehicles
Although the next generation of alternative fuel vehicles will certainly require us to get additional training and familiarization to handle safely, I’m more worried about addressing the infrastructure that is starting to get built to support these vehicles, such as electrical charging stations, hydrogen fuel cells, etc.

The fire service needs to get, and stay, involved in helping define standards and practices for integrating these features into our surroundings.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a great couple decades and I’m looking forward to a few more. I remain optimistic that, despite the challenges we’ll face in the year(s) to come, firefighters will continue doing what they’ve always done by making it happen, despite the odds.

Happy New Year!

Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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