Who's the 'Voice' of the fire service?
With a more rigorous public discourse, we will be better able to speak about what is happening and what needs to happen
There is an important difference between free speech and speech free of thought. Everyone has the right to an opinion but not all opinions deserve the same weight.
Today for the fire service, the line between good public policy and the whimsical machinations of someone with Internet access is inexorably blurred. For the fire service, this produces some difficulties.
One of the more important difficulties is that it has become increasingly tougher to cull a single "Voice" of the fire service from the plethora of writings and speaking about the fire service.
As a fire service we have a clear voice operationally with NIMS. NIMS provides a methodology for incident management. Someone noticed that despite the disparate forms fire protection takes in this country, it was necessary to provide a common operational framework on a national level. Even if NIMS is sometimes inadequate, it still provides a common language for incident management.
There is no Voice that does the same job with placing the provision of fire rescue service into the greater discourse of public policy. There is no one apolitical place to go for a circumspect understanding of what fire and rescue services means to society at large. Technology makes this Voice both necessary and possible.
Some blame technology for bringing the varied voices of the masses to the public stage, but technology alone cannot be to blame anymore than technology can be blamed for any other hubris that leads to rubbish. Technology did not create the mess; it merely enabled it.
Who would have thought 20 years ago when I first climbed on the backstop that one day you would be able to post pictures of a fire to the Web from the pump panel while the fire was still burning?
Had I even suggested such a thing, I might have earned myself a place among the Asimov reading inhabitants of Nerdville, USA. Fast-forward to today, and nearly every fire department has a social media policy of some sort along with the daily struggle over who controls the images of the scene and the image of the fire service.
What technology facilitated was a democratization of personal expression. Blogs, forums, social media and other Web-based technologies allowed people to publish their ideas instantaneously without editing and to a wider audience than traditional print media allowed.
Even more insidiously, the Web removed the time gap between seeing, thinking, and sharing, a gap that provided time for thought, reflection and editing. Ortega y Gassett said it this way: "There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus."
Is the Voice of the fire service the gravelly utterances of the chronically angry, posting barely decipherable vitriol on some of the blogs? If that is the case then the politicians are right to wonder why they should pay a crowd of cavemen so much money.
Is it those who write the blogs, mixing journalism, editorial, and conjecture to the point where tabloids are literature? Could it be the NFPA consensus building that constantly forgets that not every department is one thousand members strong or that some cannot afford their rules? Or is it the IAFC, IAFF or any other of the number of organizations who have strangleholds on the market image of the firefighter?
I for one have vested interest in seeing the fire service continue to provide the quality service to the public it so aptly has in years past. I would love to see the local volunteer organizations that make up so much of the fire service, but who have such a quiet voice in it, be given a full seat at the table.
The future of the fire service
I would love to see a fair and balanced discourse about what the future of the fire service should look like. And more than anything, I would love to see the weed-like growth of the radical, "...if you ain't going in to get it, you ain't a fireman..." sect be relegated to its rightful place on the fringes.
Things will not get better for us politically or financially in this lifetime. We are being forced to reinvent ourselves, to adapt to changing priorities and to position ourselves as better servants of a more informed public. We are constantly behind the curve of fire code development and construction techniques.
I think with a more rigorous public discourse, we will be better able to speak circumspectly about what is happening and what needs to happen. Who is "we" and who controls this discourse, who becomes the Voice?
Honestly, I am not sure. What I do know is that we support this Voice with real research that includes the long neglected social sciences. Surely if we need NIMS, and we do, then we also need our share of academics, researchers and theorists, whose arguments are validated by their peers and whose collective thought coalesces into a resonant voice for us all.
That said, I am not an academic nor am I a theorist. I am, at the end, of the day another blogger and column writer, a purveyor of non-validated opinion. And even I feel a little queasy with this talk of centralized structures controlling the discourse.
But then that is where the bloggers and the other tentacles of the fringe come in. Instead of being voices, they can continue to function as the perpetual source of the friction that forces the Voice to speak the truth. And therein lies the rub.