Firefighter training: Reality vs. perception

To have community backing, dispel the common belief that firefighters stop training once they are on the job

The American fire service, our colonial beginning to the present, has constantly evolved. We don't use hand pumpers, steamers or horses any more, yet each was effective in times past.

Many services that we now view as traditional, not long ago would have been considered radical. For example, if you started in the fire service prior to 2000, EMS, hazmat, technical rescue and incident command are second nature to you.

If you started since then, chances are you believe that mass-casualty incidents, community risk reduction, and disaster and terrorism preparedness are all a part of your job description as a firefighter. That wasn't the case for those who joined earlier.

Taking that into account, it was difficult for me to comprehend a recent statement by a well-meaning mayor of an adjourning community.

I traveled to the town at the request of their fire chief to discuss the future needs of his department. We covered everything — a potentially new station, adequate staffing, a possible collaboration of equipment or services with other departments and providing a higher level of emergency medical services.

After a few minutes of discussion, I asked the mayor why he felt the need for having his own police department. After a brief pained expression appeared on his face, he answered.

Who's training
The police were constantly in motion — on patrol 24/7/365, while there was quite a bit or at least the perception of quite a bit of down time to the fire service. After all, he added, they didn't have many fires in their community, and since all of their surrounding communities had fire departments, any one of them could put out his fires or pump water from his basements.

I pressed a little further, and another reason inadvertently came to light — their own police, it seemed to him, could use more discretion in their judgment. While if the municipality contracted police services to an outside organization such as the county sheriff, those outside police officers wouldn't know their community.

After hearing that, my thoughts went back to the fire service and the number of hours we train to prepare ourselves for gaining and keeping our certifications as firefighters, EMTs and a variety of rescue and command specialties — and how little our residents or even our own public officials know about what we do.

I had just finished teaching a portion of the state required Firefighter I and II course that lasts more than 300 hours, and having just completed the cycle of continuing education requirements for my own personal re-certification as a firefighter, EMT, fire instructor, fire inspector and continuing education instructor.

By comparison
I realized that the mayor didn't understand the minimum requirements that it took to become or stay a certified firefighter. In my case, I had to meet a minimum of 162 hours of continuing education for the state's re-certification at my chosen levels, not counting the hours that I took for the continuing education of my other professional fire service designations.

By comparison, the mayor also hadn't realized that in Ohio, with the exception four annual hours of training, usually taken as firearms and self-defensive tactics, there were no additional requirements for a police officer to re-certify through a continuing education process.

In all fairness, the Dayton Daily News reports that continuing education for police officers is currently being addressed by a task force commissioned by the Ohio Attorney General's Office with a tentative annual requirement of 40 hours of continuing education for police officers beginning next year. This initiative, however, has not as yet gone to Ohio legislators for action.

I am not knocking our brothers and sisters in blue. Most of them far exceed the annual number of training hours currently set for continuing education, but as for requirements set forth by state law for re-certification, a basic firefighter and EMT, whether volunteer, paid part-time or career, is required more training hours than his or her counterpart in law enforcement.

The question therefore should be, why are we still fighting the perception that we sit around the fire station in red suspenders playing checkers or playing fetch with our faithful Dalmatian named Sparks, Cinders or Ashes?

Myth busting
Ladies and gentlemen, we are more than one-seventh through the 21st century. Collectively, we are the best-trained fire service in the world. In fact, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in an interview on Fox News after the horrendous train crash in Philadelphia this May was asked how he judged that city's response to this major emergency.

To paraphrase Mayor Giuliani, his answer was "excellent" for two reasons. First, the fire department was given command and used the incident command system to coordinate the scene from two directions. Second, they used their mass casualty protocols that undoubtedly rescued and saved many additional lives.

He added that no one but the fire service could have done that job as effectively, and he applauded Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Derrick Sawyer, and his firefighters and paramedics for their actions that night.

So how do we change the perception of the mayors, administrators, and managers across the country who share the same view as the mayor I met?

The answer isn't simple.

It means each and every firefighter, not just the chief or union president, needs to get off their collective duff and change that perception one civilian, one civic group, one public official at a time.

Inform and show them regularly about the work involved in keeping abreast of changing techniques for something as primary as fire suppression or a newer set of skills like terrorism response. Make them aware of the new, radical threats were training for, those that haven't yet crept into the list of traditional fire service offerings.

In doing so, your actions will ensure that those in your jurisdiction know who they can unconditionally rely upon to handle their emergency, any time, any place, or any day with the care and professionalism that is the hallmark of today's fire service.

What are you waiting for?

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