What does the future hold for the fire service? 8 critical issues

CPSE/ICMA white paper considers strategies to adapt to an increasingly dynamic all-hazards work environment

By Janelle Foskett

The Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) have released a white paper, “21st Century Fire & Emergency Services,” designed to stir debate, create dialogue and promote conversations about the changes facing the next generation of leaders, not only in the fire service but also in local government.  

The takeaways represent what the group has identified as critical issues impacting the future of the fire service.

Right off the bat, the paper notes that “in the 21st century, fire and emergency services are destined to experience much more change than the last several generations.” So how can fire departments manage these growing expectations?

The white paper details eight critical issues impacting the fire service.

  1. Re-identification
  2. Culture
  3. Data
  4. Health and Wellness
  5. Partnerships
  6. Sustainability
  7. Technology
  8. Inclusiveness

Let’s dive into each issue. Note that the report also details key initiatives and many strategies to tackle these topics.

Critical Issue A: Re-identification

Today, most agencies still carry the legacy name “fire department.”

As the fire and emergency services begin to expand their services into mobile integrated healthcare, and many other related service deliveries, the legacy name fire department may no longer be relevant.

This will be an emotional issue, but creating a new identity is essential for the service to remain relevant and sustainable.

Critical Issue B: Culture

The culture of the fire and emergency services is built upon a strong legacy and is steeped in tradition. These traditions are deeply engrained in the way services are provided, the image of the fire service, beliefs about how it should look, and in many cases, who should be included.

The culture often drives decisions that are counter-intuitive to what is best for the long-term health of the organization.

Critical Issue C: Robust Use of Data

While there have been significant improvements in data use during the last 20 years, the fire and emergency services has just scratched the surface of the full potential of using data effectively to manage daily operations.

Smart cities, smart buildings, biometrics, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and real-time streaming insights into data are all on the horizon, along with many others not yet imagined.

Critical Issue D: Health & Wellness

Health and wellness issues include a variety of topics: PTSD/PTSI, Suicide, Sleep disruption and deprivation, Cardiac health, Exposures to toxic environments – exposures that are contributing factors to the increased cancer rates in firefighters and their predisposition to many health-related issues.

Critical Issue E: Partnerships

The fire and emergency services is well positioned to be the hub of service provision for many supporting services already found within their community.

Over the next 30 years, the fire and emergency services will need to partner with related service providers to create a local response network that can provide a host of services under the umbrella of a multifaceted organization.

Critical Issue F: Sustainability

As Peter Drucker put it, “the best way to predict the future is to create it.”

If the fire and emergency services hope to sustain itself in the future, it must be willing to redesign itself and address the issues that are having a negative impact on the service today.

Critical Issue G: Technology

A famous futurist predicted that in five years, we will experience 32 times more technological advancement, and in 10 years, a thousand times more. It is hard to imagine what that will translate to for the 21st century fire and emergency services, but it will undoubtedly change the way the local response agencies are doing business.

Critical Issue H: Inclusiveness

A workforce demographic that mirrors the community make-up helps to build trust with the community. Many fire departments are working with underrepresented groups to prepare them for the rigorous testing processes of joining the fire and emergency services. If the fire and emergency services hope to attract a more representative workforce, then changes in culture and current perceptions are needed.

Look to the future

I encourage you to not only read paper, but really absorb what each critical issue means for your department and your community.

Remember, “Whether it’s a more diverse workforce, a more demanding community, a more complex response system, or a shift caused by societal changes, as we look to 2050, the fire and emergency services will look vastly different that it does today.”

So it’s time to consider how you will adapt.

You can find the entire report, including background, methodology, initiatives, strategies and case studies at cpse.org/projects.

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