‘Dear chief …’: A letter from the future urges doing what’s right over what’s popular

We will remember the first chief to purchase an all-electric fire apparatus, not the chief who bought the department's last internal combustion engine


How do you look back on the decisions your department’s fire chief made in the 1980s or 90s? In 30 years, how will your successors look back on the decisions you made, the funding you secured and the relationships you created? The firefighters you hire today will carry forward the department’s culture for the next 20 to 30 years. The apparatus you purchase this decade will be in service for 10 years or more. Several generations of firefighters will work and live in the new station you help design and fund. This letter from your department’s future fire chief imagines the impact of a transformational decision in the department’s history.

Dear [Chief of Department in 2022],

Thirty years ago, I was on the cusp of graduating high school and preparing to study fire science. Watching firefighters, as well as police officers and paramedics, serve my community and take care of strangers at their moment of greatest need was inspiring to me. I daydreamed the firefighter life through my senior year and counted the minutes until I could report to the station for fire explorer training.

I have had an amazing career as a firefighter, a fire officer and now, a fire chief. But things look a lot different in 2052 than they did when you sat at this desk.

An imagined letter praises the chief who went against the grain.
An imagined letter praises the chief who went against the grain. (Photo/Getty)

In addition to thanking you for the fire explorer training, I want to share some department updates that, I believe, you put into motion in your final years as chief.

No one remembers you as the chief who bought our department’s last internal combustion engine apparatus. You are remembered as the chief who bought our department’s first electric apparatus. There is much more, though, that came from that watershed moment in our department’s history.

Like you, I’ve always found it useful to look back at our history. The logbooks, department website and social media page, our virtual museum, and meeting minutes from city council meetings make it clear that every chief before me faced challenges, but the challenges you faced were significant. You had a lot on your plate, with the combination of recruiting a qualified pool of applicants, retaining mission-focused and dedicated community servants, preparing for and responding to civil unrest, trying to find common ground with policymakers in a fractured and polarized political system, and confronting the issue of chemicals in the byproducts of combustion, not the mention the gear that was putting firefighters – and you – at increased risk of cancer.

But as you know and acknowledged through your leadership, there was no bigger threat to our communities, neighboring communities and country than the existential threat of climate change.

In your era, the fire service was constantly on the frontlines of wildfires, floods, hurricanes, tornados and other natural disasters. When 100-, 500- and 1,000-year events began happening every year, you took notice, along with other public safety and community leaders, to make sure the department adapted facilities, operations and vehicles to increase our resiliency and lessen its reliance on fossil fuels.

It’s clear from the media clips and social media posts that this wasn’t easy or popular, but being a leader is doing what’s right, not what’s popular. Putting climate change on the top of the list of threats to our future was a gamechanger for the department.

Considering how much heat you took for your decisions and leading the department on its first electric apparatus purchase, I thought you’d like to hear what has happened in the decades since you retired in 2022:

  • Accumulated fuel and maintenance savings from electric apparatus accelerated the replacement of the entire department fleet within 10 years, a full 10 years ahead of schedule.
  • Costs of purchasing electric apparatus were offset while other departments were still willing to purchase our fleet of internal combustion engine and trucks. The bottom dropped out of the used ICE apparatus market in the early 2030s, well after we had sold our inventory at premium prices.
  • Fortunately for us – and unfortunately for the departments who bought apparatus from us – internal combustion engine mechanics became nearly impossible to find and hire. You can still find a few ICE mechanics at old car shows, but most of them have gone the way of blacksmiths and farriers.
  • Not surprisingly, replacement parts for internal combustion engines disappeared almost as fast as the mechanics. Manufacturers stopped making the parts, and the departments that could afford to hoard filters, plugs, belts, valves and mufflers bought up the remnants.
  • A culture of innovation and long-term thinking blossomed in all areas of the department, and that culture still guides us today. Change didn’t happen overnight, but you would not recognize our out-of-hospital patient care practice, what you called “EMS.” We rarely transport patients to hospitals; most often we assess and treat people through virtual visits without even having to leave the station. When we do go to a patient’s home or business, they understand that we will respond with the right caregivers, resources, equipment and procedures in the right time.
  • The budget savings and environmental benefits from reducing our emissions increased the public’s trust in our department as risk reduction experts. We leveraged this this shift in public support to bring alarms and sprinklers to every structure in the community. Our people and our firefighters are safer than ever before.

I also want to note that in my study of department and fire service history, I’ve looked at some conference brochures, industry media sites and videos from the late 2010s and early 2020s. Those millennials you were concerned about – well, they capably shepherded the fire service through unprecedented change. I know your generation thought they wanted constant recognition and affirmation. In the end, it turned out that they wanted to make sure that the department understood the needs of the community and served others to their full potential.

As for Generation Z, the firefighters who came of age during the pandemic and watched the climate catastrophe unspool in real time, you’ll be proud and maybe surprised to know they might just be the most dedicated, determined and resourceful firefighters in the department’s history. Like their great-grandfathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, and fathers and mothers, they saw an opportunity to serve our community and they never looked back.

Thanks, chief. We’ll remember you for the purchase of the department’s first electric apparatus that touched off the cultural shift for the department as we know it today.

P.S. The firefighting drones and robots are great, but we will always need firefighters on the fireground.

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