‘Everybody is all in’: The power of the Fire Service One Voice message
U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell’s focus on consistent messaging has reached fire service organizations; the next step – firefighters
“I get cold chills thinking about it.” That’s how U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell describes one of several moments she’s experienced in the past year where two previously siloed organizations have stepped outside their boundaries for the greater good of the fire service.
Since her 2021 USFA appointment, Dr. Moore-Merrell has focused on building these relationships, streamlining messaging and strategizing how best to serve the fire service and its members.
The creation of the Fire and Life Safety Communicators Initiative (FLSCI), a collaboration among fire service leaders, partners and stakeholders, in 2022 demonstrated Moore-Merrell’s focus on eliminating information silos through the “Fire Service One Voice” campaign. But there is more work to be done, Moore-Merrell explains, namely going beyond the fire service organizational hierarchy to reach the line firefighters themselves.
I connected with Moore-Merrell to discuss the changes she has been championing since joining the USFA, the impact of the collaborative effort she is looking to grow in the new year, and even some breaking news about the expansion of the USFA’s Fire Service National Strategy, initially focused on six priorities:
1. Climate-driven fire and wildfire concerns
2. Recruitment and retention
3. Firefighter cancer
4. Behavioral health
5. Fire service visibility at the legislative level
6. Building codes and standards
A seventh item, lithium-ion batteries and the associated fire risks, was added to the strategy at the 2023 USFA Summit on Fire Prevention and Control in October, due to the elevated risk of the new technology.
Why was it important to add lithium-ion battery concerns to the Fire Service National Strategy, independent of the planned 2024 expansion?
Dr. Moore-Merrell: We obviously understand the need for that technology; we want to be green. But, we’re saying, as the fire service, “Please understand there’s a fire risk we must mitigate, and don’t take for granted that we’re prepared to do so,” because [this technology] took us by surprise, honestly.
Every incident we’re learning something. We still don’t know what we need to know or have every fire department and firefighter in the country educated on the protocols for this.
What can you share with us about the expansion of the Fire Service National Strategy?
In 2024, the USFA will add three additional priorities to the strategy: firefighter cardiac health; fire industry data; and EMS. After the [2023 USFA Summit] we had an after-meeting by invitation with subject matter experts, researchers and other national organizations, in which we evolved the three additions, so now there are 10 [priorities as part of the Fire Service National Strategy].
It’s been a little over 18 months since the FLSCI was launched. What progress do you feel has been made in the last year through the collaboration?
I think that the biggest win for me is that the effort has been sustained. That people show up, the community is together and we can say, “We need to amplify this message.” Everybody is just all in; so, that’s the biggest one.
The overall collaboration has become a sharing space, in that an individual group, like the Red Cross, they have something they can share, and others are using it. That’s the second thing – it’s not the whole of the group, but the inner workings of organizations together.
For me, everything is about relationships; that’s how I move initiatives. I build a relationship and help them understand the need. If we can create that network, then it can be sustained regardless of who’s sitting in the leadership chair.
Why is it important to have all fire service leaders on the same page in terms of issue focus?
It’s having everybody in the fire service – every national organization and leader, big or small – they have to believe this is important. Having us all moving on the same initiatives amplifies us, and that solidarity matters. It matters to decision-makers at the state level. It certainly matters at the federal level, because Congress is taking note.
Through the “One Voice” effort, we are showing solidarity and amplifying the messages of our National Fire Service Strategy. That “one voice” underpinning on the national strategy, that’s our foundation. This is the climate change impact on us, whether it’s wind, water, flood or fire. The recruitment strategies – where we’re coming together with actionable items we’re going to move in 2024. It’s the cancer initiatives. We’re getting attention within federal government and on [Capitol] Hill.
So, this solidarity of our national organizations, when they can say, “We will stand together to move this One Voice Fire Service National Strategy” is incredibly effective.
From a rank-and-file point of view, do you feel like the average firefighter is hearing and absorbing that unified message by the fire service organizations?
I love that question because the answer is we’re working on it. So, if you ask me today, are they aware? No, they’re not. I do a station visit everywhere I go, and we were just recently in Irving, Texas, for the IAFC’s Technology Summit International. We did a station visit with a three-company station, so it was like 14 people. I asked them, “You guys, have you ever heard of ‘One Voice?’ Are you familiar with our national strategy?” And everybody said no.
That’s the dynamic we’re trying to change; we have a lot of work to do, and the One Voice group knows this. All of our national organizations are working to get it to the station level. For example, we still have departments that don’t know about the National Cancer Registry. How do we message this down? What do we need to do differently? So, we are well aware.
We have focused on the public, which is what the original initiative was intended to do. We want that messaging for the public, if we’re going to stop fire deaths, injuries and displacements, which are all three problems. It’s not just the fatalities; fire is contributing to the homelessness [crisis] in this nation. Consequently, in the winter months, homelessness contributes to the fire problem. We have to be able to tell this story to decision-makers and say, “If you’ll just enforce the national building code, you can stop these structure fires that are contributing to homelessness that are causing a lot of our social issues.” In the fire service, we have to tell the story and connect the dots.
After the first year, we’re going to come back to the FLSCI and say, “OK, we’ve been public-facing and everybody is amplifying. We want you to continue that. But your new challenge is, how do we get this messaging to the fire station, to the individual firefighter? How do we get to our own people?”
Through the national fire strategy, from a public-facing perspective, do you feel the collaboration is able to break through the fire-danger apathy in the country?
I think it’s a way. We’re still working through different methods and practices to try to find the way. I think it’s a multifaceted approach; I think that we have to continue working every way we can because we often fall among the noise. People are getting so much information on social media, at work, at home, messaging from the kids’ school. It becomes noise. How do we break through that with the message that [a fire tragedy] can happen to you? In fact, it’s very likely to happen to you.
These are the kinds of messages from public safety that we are all competing for that little bit of space to get people to think, “It can happen to me. So I need to make myself savable. I need to be safe. I need to ....” Right? These kinds of things that we can get behavioral change off a message without it being on the back of a tragedy. Because that’s when people will listen to you. You’ve got a little bit of little aperture to get something in there after something really bad happens.
How has the establishment of the annual USFA Summit on Fire Prevention and Control been a part of the overall national strategy and the collaborative initiative?
I think that it has caused an excitement across the fire service that has been contagious. I think that the national organizations coming together and doing something collectively, being heard by our national leaders, being in the presence of our national leaders and getting an opportunity to speak, to tell our story, is huge. And now they know we can do something. Let’s do this. It’s actionable together.
The National Association of Fire Training Directors (NAFTD) just recently went to meet with the IAFF. That has never happened before. The IAFF sent speakers to speak at the NVFC. I’m like, “This is cats-and-dogs-sleeping-together kind of stuff.” I get cold chills thinking about it. These things are happening in the margins of this Summit, and then we all come back together and hold each other accountable – that’s important, too.
What is the goal of the initiative and One Voice movement for 2024? What are you hoping to see accomplished?
We spent the last year defining and talking about [the problems facing the fire service], giving all the evidence of our challenges, giving you every fact you ever need to know. For 2024, we must act. Where are our open doors? What can we do with the resources we already have? What can we do, collectively, with those resources to facilitate or put something in motion that changes the status quo for the fire service?
By the end of next year, I’d like to be saying, “We did this. We did this. We did this.” That’s my hope for 2024.
Has the current administration embraced the USFA’s efforts to push their collaborative goals and the national fire strategy? Are you finding support at the federal level?
We absolutely have. Not only has [President Joe Biden] shown up at both Summits live, he would’ve been in-person [at the 2023 Summit] had it not been for the Israeli situation that was only two days old at that point. So, the president is extremely supportive of firefighter initiatives.
We have never had anyone in that seat that has been so knowledgeable of our issues and so supportive of whatever we ask. That has trickled down, not only to [the president’s] executive office through the National Security Council on resilience, but also by U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who is incredibly supportive, and by our FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell, who is also incredibly supportive of everything we ask. So, if we’ve got the initiatives and we’ve got the people to do the work, they’re opening doors. We are going to stay on that path. But this administration, like never before, is incredibly supportive of our initiatives.
‘Step up and be part of something’
As 2024 gets underway, Moore-Merrell implores those with a passion for the fire service to get involved: “We want everybody to be part of these initiatives. We want people who are ready to step up and be part of something. Join us.”