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Roundtable: Community risk reduction in the year ahead

Wildfires, acts of violence and declining numbers in the fire service will require training, data-driven approaches to emergency response


Resiliency has never been more important as firefighters have responded to disasters while falling victim themselves to violence and the loss of their homes amidst community-wide destruction.

AP Photo/Kathleen Ronayne


From the historic wildfires, to hurricane threats, to mass casualty incidents, the fire service responded to and overcome unprecedented emergencies in 2018. Resiliency has never been more important as firefighters have responded to disasters while falling victim themselves to violence and the loss of their homes amidst community-wide destruction.

We asked leaders from the FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board what 2019 will bring for the fire service. Here, they share their predictions, as well as tips for departments to be prepared for the changes ahead.

All emergency services leaders should plan for wildfires

As recovery continues after California’s deadly and destructive wildfires, emergency services agencies across the country are assessing their own capabilities to prepare for, respond to and follow up to such events.

Historically, wildfires have been expected in states like California and the Mountain West, but they have also been common this year in the Desert Southwest, the Pacific Northwest and even Alaska. No one is immune: in recent years, devastating wildland and wildland/urban interface fires have also occurred in states such as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Florida. And if those in more strictly urban areas feel safe from such threats, keep in mind that prior to this year’s Camp Fire in Northern California, the deadliest fire in that state’s history occurred in Griffith Park, entirely within the confines of the City of Los Angeles.

Changing weather patterns, extended droughts and increased population pressures make wildland fire an issue that should be foremost in the minds of all emergency service leaders in 2019.

Linda F. Willing, president, RealWorld Training & Consulting

Active attacks, natural disasters require specialized training

Unfortunately, I am concerned about two issues; both of which may have overlapping solutions.

The first concern is active attacks. Mass shootings, riots, vehicle attacks at large events, bombings and so on seem to be on the rise. The second concern revolves around natural disasters. Tornados, hurricanes, wildfires and floods all seem to be on the rise in both frequency and intensity.

The active attacks will require increased risks in the part of first responders. The realization that quick action by PD and prompt assistance from EMS/fire personnel to treat casualties as fast as possible in order to increase survival rates of those injured will dramatically change our response models. Specialized training and equipment will be required, and procedures such as the use of rescue task forces will need to be developed or adopted in order to minimize some of the risks associated with these types of incidents.

Natural disasters will require flexibility on the part of first responders and improved cooperation between emergency personnel and the community affected. Increased specialized training will be required for emergency personnel and increased public education efforts will be needed so that the public understands when and how to assist with other victims and when they should avoid or evacuate areas in hazard areas.

Both types of incidents will require all responders to master the incident command system in order to successfully manage the incidents and minimize the risks to the community and the first responders.

— Pedro Caceres, battalion chief, Wayne Township (Indiana) Fire Department

Ask the hard questions to respond effectively

Since taking the position of fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, I have come to experience a greater appreciation of the continued issues in volunteer/paid-on-call/part-time firefighter recruitment, retention and participation. Just in my short four months, I have seen the difficulty in and complexity of operating a combination department. While this by no means a new “hot topic,” I do foresee it becoming a bigger topic as the shortage continues in departments across the nation.

The fact is, there are a number of circumstances that have created this environment that should be considered. Some of those circumstances are generational differences, wants and needs among members and recruits. Limited time to contribute because of societal work and life balance; a limited recruiting pool in communities; pay/response incentives; and even setting a too high of a standard for the good of the organization that some cannot, or are not, interested in achieving are all factors.

So how does this affect the response model? If numbers continue to decrease in 2019, I can only see response times increasing, a risk of greater fire loss, and a greater risk of firefighter injury and/or death. In my opinion, this is beyond an emerging topic for 2019, it’s a crisis that must be discussed and addressed.

While I don’t have the magic answer of how to resolve the issues, change is inevitable. That means we must change our approach to adapt and be successful.

Can we recruit members to serve in special positions or are we maintaining that a minimum standard serve as a one-fit all? Can we step our community risk reduction (including residential sprinkler advocacy) efforts to counteract the increased risks due to decreased staffing? Should we change the way we train to perform based on the resources we have (i.e., don’t try to be the big department with the little department resources)? Have we effectively marketed our organization to the community to where they understand our needs and understand their vulnerability?

These are just a few of the many questions we must ask to prepare for the challenges ahead in 2019 and beyond.

Billy D. Hayes, fire chief, Onalaska, Wisconsin Fire Department

Forging a unified approach to WUI and forest management

The wildland urban interface and forest service management issue is likely to consume significant media real estate and time for the fire service community. Communities will continue to struggle with a unified approach – interrupted by disparate policies, resources, capabilities and local/special interest regulations.

The fire service community – from the local fire chiefs to our national representative organizations – must come together, working with the Congressional First Service Institute, local politicians and the Forest Service to identify common ground.

Local fire departments need to embrace common objectives and use all of the emerging technologies, software and systems to improve their response. UAVs, both in the WUI and urban environments will likely be a large part of that technical preparation, response and ultimately recovery, as chiefs evaluate scenes and grapple with widespread devastation unseen in modern history.

Marc Bashoor, FireRescue1 executive editor; public safety director, Highlands County, Florida

FDs need a new volunteer model, as they embrace risk reduction

Personnel locating – this continues to be an issue on the fireground in the metro, suburban and rural areas. We need to know who is on scene and where they are at. We have vehicle locator systems that can tell dispatch and the shift commander where vehicles are at throughout a city. The technology is available though the military and the fire service needs that technology to be released so we can access it at a reasonable cost.

Fire departments should also embrace the community risk reduction (CRR) program even as fire responses continue to decline. CRR can help a fire department provide factual information on the risks faced at the local level. CRR can help justify additional costs that might include staffing, stations or apparatus needs. CRR helps to remove the emotional response when asked, “What has the FD done for me lately?”

Additionally, volunteer-staffed departments – the Benjamin Franklin model – citizens helping citizens, is fractured. Demands being placed on volunteers by regulations, community expectations and service requests require a new model. The new model may include compensation of volunteers so that volunteering becomes a part-time job which it is for many.

John M. Buckman, III, fire chief (Ret.), German Township (Indiana) Volunteer Fire Department

Data best tool to remain current with disruptive technology

This will be another year where fire departments wrestle with the challenges of cancer prevention and firefighter resiliency with respect to PTSD. The new emerging issues I see coming down the pipe include how technology and artificial intelligence will impact how we respond and mitigate events. Driverless cars and trucks are now being tested on our roadways and have yet to proven their safety. There are approximately 1.18 deaths per 100 million driven miles today with human drivers while there have already been three deaths with under 10 million miles driven with driverless vehicles.

Other robotics and disruptive technology will continue to affect how we do our jobs – in some good and some challenging ways.

Payment reform for ambulances needs to happen sooner rather than later. The 50-year outdated model of transporting everyone to an emergency room regardless of their chief complaint needs to change to allow us to navigate patients to the proper treatment and still be reimbursed. Efforts are currently under way by national organizations to impact ambulance payment reform.

Regardless of the changes or challenges coming in 2019, information is the most important tool that chiefs and fire departments can use to stay on top of issues that impact their departments. Joining and engaging in national fire organizations such as the International Association of Fire Chiefs is one way of getting good information. Reading information on the internet and setting up alerts for key words is another method. As they say, “chance favors the prepared mind.”

Gary Ludwig, fire chief, Champaign Fire Department; 1st Vice President, International Association of Fire Chiefs

The Editorial Advisory Board, composed of some of the foremost experts in the fire service, will advise editors on the most timely and relevant information and resources for firefighters and officers across both FireRescue1 and Fire Chief, as well as providing content and insight into emerging trends of note for special coverage efforts.