3 fire chiefs tackle fire service issues at FRI

IAFC ditched the traditional keynote speaker at FRI in favor of an open discussion on big issues with three fire chiefs

DALLAS — Throwing off convention to the point of poking fun at some past keynote addresses, the International Association of Fire Chief's brought out three prominent fire chiefs to discuss major fire service issues at Fire-Rescue International.

In introducing the concept, IAFC CEO and Executive Director Mark Light joked that one notable keynote address from the past involved race car driver Rusty Wallace "who spent the night with Willie Nelson on his bus somewhere in Texas."

But the conversation turned serious when former Los Angeles Fire Chief Brian Cummings was asked how to bring about change in a fire department. When he took over in 2011, the department had $92 million in budget cuts and four fire chiefs in just more than five years.

"It's kind of like trying to change a propeller on a plane while you're flying it," Cummings said.

His efforts had mixed results, he said. However, an independent study made several recommendations that Cummings believes will help the new chief if adopted — foremost would be a contract for the fire chief.

This, he said, would give the chief the ability to implement change and counter those who cling to the status quo as they wait for the next series of chiefs to be appointed.

Ponderosa (Texas) Fire Chief Fred Windisch also addressed this issue saying that fire departments need to abandon the practice of electing chiefs and officers. Those positions should be appointed based on merit, not put in place based on popularity, he said.

Windisch said he was concerned with what he sees as a sense of entitlement in firefighters.

Prince George's County Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said it is not realistic to expect the fire chief to single-handedly drive department change. Politicians, he said, are concerned with winning and chiefs need to figure out what we can do to give them that win.

"If we can give them a win here or there while still moving our department forward, then that change will come," Chief Bashoor said.

The chiefs also addressed the state of fire service standards, drawing attention to how fire departments stick to the letter of a standard when it comes to gear and equipment, but pick and choose which to follow in other areas. Departments' reluctance to require annual physicals is one example, Chief Bashoor said.

There are many good standards in place, Chief Windisch said. The industry needs to slow down on producing new standards and let the fire service catch up, he said. 

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