A crisis of authenticity: 30,000 ways of doing business cannot be the norm
Our resistance to standardization and data-driven decision-making only feeds the chaos that runs counter to our mission
In a perfect world, destructive and life-threatening fires simply would not occur. But alas, this is not the world we live in. We have to park these fantasies at the door and focus our efforts on constant improvement, working to perfect whatever we can wherever possible.
While we’ve taken steps to improve our world, like removing firefighters from unprotected backsteps, we continue to argue over mutual aid, standardized response assignments, acceptable staffing levels, paid versus volunteer, 24/72 versus 48/96 versus 24/24, even sprinklers, and yes red versus any other color. You can pretty much name it, and there will be someone willing to contribute to these chaotic – and sometimes silly – arguments.
Authenticity and chaos
This chaos of opinions leads me to observe a general lack of authenticity within our ranks. In fact, I’d say we are facing a crisis of authenticity. The problem is in our messaging. We talk “sprinkler safety,” yet I continue to hear comments from chiefs and others in our ranks like, “sprinklers will be the death of the volunteer fire service.” Now, I understand the reference folks are making here; however, this kind of attitude is central to my authenticity argument.
Whether it’s sprinklers or mutual aid, when staffed fire stations sit miles closer to fatal house fires than others alerted, our job must be all about upholding the public trust. Showing up at the right place, at the right time, with the right people and equipment, to do the right things is the core set of principles to this trust. We will do no more harm than has already been done. Understanding our duty to uphold the public’s trust is central to our ability to control the chaos of opinions.
In an administrative effort that can help us tame the chaos, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell is taking the long-term steps necessary to improve our data collection capabilities across the United States fire service. This data standardization effort is one of THE most authentic efforts I’ve seen in my 40-plus years of fire service experience.
30,000 ways of doing business
How many times have you heard sentiments like this?
- “We don’t call them because they don’t call us.”
- “You don’t understand how it works here.”
- “Fires burn differently in my first due.”
- “We don’t have time for the paperwork.”
As I’ve observed the 30,000-plus ways we do things across the country’s fire departments, Dr. Moore-Merrell’s mission is hamstrung from the beginning. Standardized data and centralized data collection efforts will be critical for a successful fire service moving forward. Our insistence to do things 30,000 ways only feeds the chaos that runs counter to our core mission.
We do NOT have to wait for the data, however, to make key operational differences. Mutual-aid (automatic where at all possible) agreements are one of the core things we can put into action now. In my opinion, it should be criminal for staffed fire stations (or medic units) to sit idle when life safety is at risk. While some jurisdictions have taken steps to improved mutual aid, others have much work to do. Mark my words, “I’ll see you in court” on this one sooner or later.
I agree that operational policies might differ based on various factors within communities: hydrants versus drafting, adequate minimum staffing levels, the standards of coverage within jurisdictions. These factors will impact our one constant – fire behavior.
Fire behavior does not act differently in hydrant areas versus non-hydrant areas. What differs is your ability to provide a continuous water supply. Fire behavior does not change based on your staffing levels or standard of coverage. What differs is the structural impact based on your ability to efficiently fight the fire.
You can take almost any topic and point to the 30,000 “differences” among our way of doing business, even background checks and physicals. We must find a way to ensure that every firefighter and EMS provider – paid and volunteer – has a state and federal background check as well as a physical before we place them in a position of maintaining the public trust. It is a misconception that the public trust is automatic or a rite of passage; we must earn and maintain their trust. Background checks and physicals are a first line of defense to help chiefs do just that.
Furthermore, if funding is a problem for background checks, talk with your local law enforcement partners to see how they might be able to help and/or talk with your state fire marshal or fire service credentialing officials to see how they might be able to assist.
Ideally, both background checks and physicals are annual requirements. Don’t give me the “we don’t have time for that” crap. It’s once a year, and the results will not only keep you out of court, but they may just save a life as well!
We have a responsibility to be authentic in our presentation as public safety officials and authentic in the management of our departments. Firefighting is not a mere task job that anybody can do, and the leadership necessary to lead these forces must not be allowed to bring chaos to the table. As always, CHAOS must not mean Chief Has Arrived On Scene.