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What industrial firefighting can teach municipal departments

Private industry understands that incidents hit the bottom line and prevention is key; here's how that can translate into municipal firefighting

I started out writing this article with the thought that its focus would be on tools, training and techniques employed in the industrial fire protection world that municipal firefighters might find useful.

Then I received an email from an industrial firefighter, who is also a volunteer firefighter, that caused me to sit back and say, “Wow.”

That firefighter’s thoughts can be summed up as: Municipal firefighters think locally while industrial firefighters think globally.

“Many career fire guys (and quite a few young volunteers) have a local mentality. I read [the trade journals] about the knowledge that some people have who have spent a career in one place, working with the people and hazards of their area of operation,” he wrote.

He went on to tell about a friend who is a municipal firefighter who always bid the same station and retired out of it. He wanted to be the best firefighter he could be and his resume bore that out.

“He did not have a global mentality of his district,” he wrote. “He had an entrenched mindset. He cared first about his personal performance, then how it affected his company, his station, his district and then his department (which, by the way, is the entire tax-based community that he served). He did not concern himself with the community overall.”

In contrast, the firefighter wrote, industrial firefighters have a global outlook and understand the need to protect the facility’s operations. “If the facility wasn’t operating and making money, we’d be out of a job,” he wrote. The entire focus from the private sector/operation mindset was to be engaged in loss prevention.”

Vested interest

He said their facility’s fire department had the directive to:

  • Issue hot work permits and all the functions that the process entails.
  • Conduct inspection, testing and maintenance (ITM) on every fire protection system weekly.
  • Conduct ITM on portables monthly.
  • Conduct ITM on all fire pumps weekly.
  • Flow test hydrants annually.
  • Manage confined-space permits and monitoring of work sites.

“(That’s) not something that many municipal fire service organizations do often,” he wrote. “The calling for municipal firefighters should be about the community, not only about the job.

“Most industrial settings have this global directive: Try not to have a problem first; react swiftly when a problem arises (thus the on-site hazardous materials response team, the fire brigade and the medical response unit) to mitigate and abate the problem; and continue business operations.”

He said both contractor firefighters and in-house firefighters are trained for their jobs with a strong emphasis on safety.

“But it goes back to that culture mentality,” he said. “In-house fire protection is provided by employees of the business that have a vested interest. Contract fire protection responders (like municipal firefighters) are in it for the thrill, money or prestige. There is no buy-in.”

Can municipal departments think globally?

His email raised questions about how municipal fire departments can influence their employees or members to become global in their perspective.

First, we must work at changing the mindset. Who do municipal fire officers and firefighters work for? Most will answer: The fire department.

In reality, they all work for the community, that is, those people and businesses who pay taxes or make donations that provide the department with its financial means to operate.

So, it stands to reason that the primary focus of a fire department should be to protect its most important asset, the community’s tax base or donation base, from loss. That’s a big shift from thinking your primary job is to put out fires or take care of sick or injured people.

Did you know that an estimated 65 percent of small business that suffer a significant fire will fail within five years? In today’s economic climate, that statistic is likely only getting worse as many small businesses, and even larger ones, are operating on a very thin profit margin.

It’s in best interest of every fire officer and firefighter to ensure that businesses in their community do not fail because they experienced a preventable fire.

An ideal tax base for most communities is a balance of 70 percent residential property and 30 percent industry and business taxes. And very few communities attain the optimal mix.

From the ground up

If a fire department wants to have its members thinking globally, it needs to change its paradigm for why it exists. Some fire departments have changed their name from Fire Department to something like, Fire and Rescue Department or Fire and Emergency Services Department.

But isn’t that somewhat like painting a house a different color and calling it a new house? If you want a new house, you either must buy one or build one.

If a municipal fire chief wants to move his or her people from a local focus to a global focus, they’re going to need to start with a new foundation and build up from there.

Consider a foundation that starts with a mission statement like, “Reduce human and property loss in our community from preventable causes.”

Continue with a values statement such as, “We place great value on the lives and property within our community and as the Community Loss Prevention Department we embrace our role as the leader in community-wide efforts to reduce losses from preventable causes.”

What if one of a fire department’s stated goal was to have zero preventable fires in its community? Unrealistic you say? So was going to the moon.

What impact would that have on every member’s job responsibilities and performance measures? What if everyone’s job responsibilities, from the fire chief on down to the newest members, focused on these four items?

1. Mitigation: minimizing the effects of incidents that could occur. Examples: fire prevention codes, community risk reduction activities and public education.

2. Preparedness: Planning how to respond. Examples: Preparedness plans, emergency exercises and training and warning systems.

3. Response: Efforts to reduce the loss created by an emergency event. Examples: Fire suppression, EMS, managing hazardous materials incidents and technical rescue operations.

4. Recovery: Assisting those affected by the emergency to regain a sense of normalcy. Examples: Resources for temporary housing, financial assistance and business restoration.

Perhaps we should continue by replacing the job title of fire chief with that of chief of community loss prevention? Firefighters would be retitled as community loss preventers. Then create job responsibilities for those CLPs and their managers that focus on:

  • Loss reduction strategies where fire suppression is a component, but not the entire focus.
  • Developing community relations and public outreach.
  • Fire and life safety education for all ages.
  • Fire inspection and code education for business owners.
  • Fire inspection and code enforcement.
  • Salvage and short-term restoration strategies to use with homeowners and business owners.

Think for a bit how different our former fire department would look. Think how different our recruiting processes would need to be. And think how different our entry-level training would be.

There’s a lot we can learn from our industrial firefighting brothers and sisters. And the biggest lesson may be shifting our perspective. 

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