Fire service leaders talk President Trump

Fire service insiders explain the threats and opportunities they see when the incoming administration and Congress take charge

To better understand what impacts the fire service may see from a Trump administration and Republican controlled Congress, we reached out to several key fire service leaders for their perspectives. We asked them to identify what they saw as the biggest opportunities and threats the coming year will bring.

We invite you to leave your comments on what lies ahead for the fire service below. In the coming days, we'll publish several of those voices from the fire service in an article.

John Sinclair, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and Fire Chief of the Kittitas (Wash.) Fire and Rescue Department
A team from International Association of Fire Chiefs (of which Sinclair was part) met with representatives from both candidacies in September to discuss issues facing the fire service. On the Republican side, they met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence's staff.

The primary goal was to make sure they understood that fire departments did more than respond to fires, that they were all-hazard responders.

They also talked about how, even in large-scale disasters, it is the local responders who are first on scene. There are many contemporary examples in the news of how fire and EMS respond to all hazards large and small.

Another goal was to inform the Pence staffers about the legislative issues facing the fire service. Those include proposed legislation to renew AFG and SAFER grants, the volunteer responder act, the patient protection act, the USAR act and the anthrax preparedness act.

"I don't think there's any fear (about the new administration)," Sinclair said. "Any time there's a new administration or congress, there are opportunities to make those relationships. Explaining the mission of the modern fire service is challenging. Our job is to make sure they understand."

Trump has spoken very affirmatively about first responders, he said. "He seems predisposed to emergency responders."

The new administration provides a good opportunity to look at issues that impact health care and EMS. For example, when Medicare was drafted, EMS was little more than a transport agency. It is still classified as a transportation supplier, despite its changed role to health care provider.

"We had a contentious election season and there is part of our country that is not happy. Our founding fathers and mothers crafted a great system. We have our hiccups, but I don't see doom and gloom.

"The federal government is going to continue. Our day-to-day lives are going to remain pretty darn good."

Billy Goldfeder, deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department and who hosts and sponsors
It used to be that even experts could predict the future, but that hasn't worked out very well recently, has it? So my best size up can only be based upon what we have heard and seen, and even then we may have some surprises. So, my size up hits these four areas.

1. Local funding
Local governments need to get serious about what they want their fire service to look like. And they better do it quick. I expect that we will see much less federal funding and grants available to help set those levels.

That money may not go away, but it may be sent to other areas such as prevention and local self-help programs. But, if you listen to the history of some who have been elected or re-elected, the funding could be completely wiped out.

If I were a mayor, I would be looking at my fire department to be set up on only what we are willing to fund locally and nothing more. Rest assured, I hope some of the SAFER and FIRE ACT programs are kept, but it is near impossible to be optimistic at this time. 

2. Health care
Health care? Who the hell knows? Just when we thought we might know what its all about, things change. And they will change again, very soon.

We will probably see more of a push (voluntary or not) to more community paramedicine programs and mobile integrated health care programs. The less people go to the hospital, (people that don't have to be there, but the system allows few options) but instead are properly directed to the correct type of care — the better it is for all.

3. Rules, laws and federal regulations
We can expect any regulations that apply to the fire service to be looked at strongly. Our new leadership (House, Senate and the White House) appears to be all about less rules and regulations and getting rid of some of those, regardless of their being what we may consider good or valued for those we serve.

4. Volunteer fire service
One of the worst kept secrets is that, for the most part, volunteer fire services are failing. I am a time-proven advocate of successful volunteer services, but the fact is that people barely have time these days for their families, no less volunteering.

Are there successful VFD's? Hell yes. But so many others for a variety of reasons are giving their public an impression that fire trucks will come roaring out of the fire station when they call, and that is hardly the case.

Need proof? Turn on a scanner in areas protected by volunteers and listen how many times the tones go off for a fire or EMS call. Please prove me wrong.

One of the reasons for this failure that so many volunteer departments haven't kept up with the growth and changes of their community. You simply cannot have a 1960s model of a volunteer fire department and expect it to keep working in 2016. That's not going to happen. Volunteer fire departments must evolve, and that means different things for different departments.

So why is this relevant to you asking me about election results?

Many cities are reliant on SAFER grants support for their career personnel. Many cities barely have adequate staffing using their own local funding. Many volunteer departments are failing and have no idea how to solve that problem, and local money may not be an option.

What's that future?

Eventually, this has the potential to be a much larger problem than just a local one — many are of the opinion that it is right now. So at some point it may become a "please help us federal elected officials" problem, whether they want it to be or not. 

Again, just listen to the fire radio. Be it a poorly staffed career fire department or a poor or non-existent turnout from a volunteer department — from an EMS call to a crash to a fire — the problems will have to be addressed. 

Perhaps our new federally elected folks will cut and cut and cut taxes and do anyway with what they may consider wasteful programs. If so, those savings will be then passed on to local taxpayers who would then be willing to properly fund their local fire department. Or, maybe not.

We seriously need a crystal ball. 

Pedro Careces, battalion chief, Wayne Township (Ind.) Fire Department and editorial advisory board member
From the new president-elect, I would like to see the type of leadership that is open to exploring all sides of an issue but can take decisive action. From the U.S. Congress, I would like to see action unimpeded by fear — fear of special interests, fear of political consequences and fear of ridicule.

I would like for Congress to stop hiding behind procedural instruments that typically bog down the government and take action instead. If you support something, have the courage to stand up and vote for it. If you oppose it, stand up and vote it down. Do not avoid your responsibility to the people by not taking action. Accept the consequences of your actions.

We typically teach our officers to make quick decisions when needed and slow down when necessary, and we caution them on the dangers of not doing anything at all. We teach them to quickly size up a problem, understand the consequences and take decisive action. Hesitation or no action could easily result on negative unintended consequences.

Inaction due to fear of making a mistake or receiving ridicule can be devastating, even deadly, on the fireground. The way we minimize hesitation is by preparing ahead of time.

Education, training, experience, teamwork are all used to build confidence. Confidence results in good decisions. Good decisions result in action and progress.

For the fire and EMS service, I would like the new government to learn about what we do and how their actions or lack thereof can affect our ability to fulfill our mission. I would like for the new government to better understand the context in which we operate and the consequences of our service.

I would like the new government to not give us what we want, but rather give us what we need and what we have earned.

Dave Finger, chief of legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council
One of the big takeaways from the election is that turnout in rural areas, where populations are shrinking and tax bases are eroding, was high. Folks in small towns are struggling across the board, including in the public safety arena.

One big positive from the perspective of the volunteer fire service is that this election could shine a light on the challenges that our members are facing related to resource and staffing shortages. We'll be working to make sure that Congress understands how the changes taking place in rural America are impacting volunteer fire and EMS.

One of our big focuses next year will be on trying to reauthorize the AFG, SAFER and FP&S grant programs. The programs will expire if they are not reauthorized by January 2018, so that will be a top priority.

Trump and congressional Republicans are interested in reforming the tax code. There are several tax bills that the NVFC supports that would help with volunteer recruitment and retention, and tax reform could be a great opportunity for that.

We'll be reaching out to the new administration to make them aware of our issues, and watching the president's budget request for FY2018 closely. How the Trump administration chooses to prioritize spending on different programs will set the stage for congressional appropriations.

It's not clear if the attention on rural voters will boost volunteer firefighter recruiting and retention, but I think it makes policy makers more receptive to the argument that rural areas need help, which could translate into enactment of policies that do end up helping with volunteer recruitment and retention. One of the big areas where I see potential for this is with tax reform and our recruit and retain tax bills.

It is possible that higher voter participation rates in rural areas could signify a surge in civic engagement, which could in turn lead to more people volunteering as fire and EMS personnel. Just looking at data on the number of volunteer firefighters it seems like that happened after 9/11.

I suspect that rural voters came to the polls in greater numbers because Trump resonated with them. Time will tell if there is anything more to it than that.

If Congress starts enacting laws that help rural areas that would help, even if the policies don't specifically address recruit and retention or even public safety in general. After 9/11 Congress started funding AFG, and I'm sure that had an impact on staffing even though the new money was just going to pay for equipment and apparatus.

Billy Hayes, interim-chief program officer for the National Center Fire and Life Safety and editorial advisory board member
The 2016 presidential campaign and election has been anything but normal or predictable. But, we always say when it is predictable, then it should be preventable.

In my opinion, what we have seen over the last several years in politics, and this election should prove it, is that when leadership, both Democratic and Republican, loses touch with the followership, change is sure to follow — and it is often forced change.

This is no different than when a leader ignores the signs and symptoms of a fire and emergency services organization they are responsible for. Eventually, the members lose interest, they desire change, retention becomes an issue and service delivery to the customer suffers.

It's predictable, so it should be preventable.

This is a true case study of how fire and emergency service leaders should connect, seek feedback and buy-in from the members, collaborate and celebrate change for the good of the people and organization. They should not do this just out of necessity or an agenda. Lives truly do depend on it.

Phil Stittleburg, fire chief of Lafarge (Wis.) Fire Department, past chair of NVFC and NFPA, and editorial advisory board member 
If it's true that in confusion there is opportunity, then we are indeed blessed by the last election. The challenge will be to turn the upheaval in government to our advantage.

If the press is to be believed, the little guy, especially the little guy in rural America, triumphed. This could be a good thing for the volunteer fire service when it comes to AFG funding and other grass roots initiatives.

We will certainly be living in interesting times.

John Buckman III, Fire Chief/FireRescue1 editorial advisor
Those in the fire service need to understand the federal government impacts the fire and EMS delivery systems in a multitude of ways. The U.S. Fire Administration, National Fire Academy and FEMA are the agencies fire and EMS organizations think about most often.

Here's a look at several other agencies and why they are important to us.

The Department of Transportation impacts EMS, hazmat, chemical, biological events and our ability to prepare for, equip ourselves and respond to those events when they happen at the local level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention impacts research in a variety of ways including the occupational cancer issue.

The Bureau of Land Management has a significant influence on the wildland fire issue, including response. The Department of Agriculture has grants for rural fire departments.

The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance is a directory of 2,303 different grant programs administered by various agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education.

Not all of the 2,303 grants are applicable to the fire and EMS organizations, but it is important to look and try to make a fit. Don't forget to engage your federal representatives in the grant process

Our military forces impact fire and EMS organizations with technology that can be applied in the street such as telemetry of vital signs and thermal imagers. 

The federal government grant programs are at risk as AFG and SAFER are due for reauthorization. Local fire and elected officials must be engaged in talking with their congressional representatives to make sure these vital grant programs are funded again.

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