If the report’s eight predictions and associated recommendations come to pass, here are the likely impacts for non-career fire departments
By Rick Markley
There’s a scene in the classic 1981 movie “Excalibur” where a young Guinevere offers a pastry to a smitten Arthur. Arthur asks Merlin what the future holds. Merlin tells him the future is like the cake, you never know what is inside until you take a bite, and then, of course, it is too late.
Arthur, without a second thought, bites into the cake.
Unlike King Arthur, the fire service can ill-afford to plunge into tomorrow’s cake without speculating on its contents, preparing for various contents and trying to manipulate those contents during baking.
The Center for Public Safety Excellence and the International City/County Management Association wrapped up a report more than two years in the making that identifies eight critical areas the fire service needs to address by 2050. The conclusions were drawn by fire service and local government experts based on focus group and survey data they collected. You can download the full report here.
To unpack what this report means for volunteer and part-time fire departments, let’s not squabble over the contents of the cake. Let’s assume the authors’ predictions are correct. And that’s not a huge leap of faith on our part. As you will see, each of the eight areas of concern are current problems facing the fire service. And, if left treated, they will certainly grow into catastrophic problems over the coming 30 years.
Solving each of the eight areas will require that we change certain mindsets and commit additional resources — both human and financial. This is especially troubling for those of us in the non-career fire service sector as we have seen a trend of less available resources, not more, coupled with greater demands for service. This leaves the volunteer sector with fewer reward, punishment or accountability options to guide department members toward new ways of thinking, working and behaving.
Here are the eight areas of concern the report identified: fire service re-identification, culture, data use, health and wellness, partnership opportunities, sustainability, new technology and inclusiveness.
Culture, inclusion and fire service rebranding
The report says fire departments will need come up with new naming ideas that better reflect all the services it offers, especially with fire being among the least provided service in terms of call volume. It also says departments will need to take that branding to the community through increased engagement.
Volunteer departments will need to keep an open mind and assess this objective on a department-by-department basis. This will involve anticipating what services the community is likely to want and need and if the department can meet those needs. Advanced Life Support ambulance service may not be necessary in low-population areas already covered by a private transport firm. Whereas specialized rescue, such as machinery and confined space, may be needed in areas with more agriculture and industry.
And be cautious, changing a name but nothing else is like putting a fresh coat of paint on old rust bucket car that won’t run — you’ll be left with a shiny rust bucket that won’t run. Make real changes to the department before worrying about branding.
Those real changes hit on the report’s second item and probably the most important one for volunteer departments. Culture is the bedrock of all volunteer fire departments. Improve the culture and a lot of other problems fall by the wayside. You can spend all the money and energy you want on a killer recruiting campaign, but if the culture is toxic everyone in a small town will already know it — those who don’t know it and sign on will soon become part of the “retention” problem.
This is where our rubber meets the road. And building and maintaining a good culture is difficult, possibly the hardest thing we have to do. That is apparent by the number of volunteer departments we read about who are decertified or see mass resignations not because of external pressures, but due to internal cancers.
The report lists three initiatives for improving culture: strengthening relationships between the department and other organizations, promoting an environment that is adaptable and continuously improving, and setting expectations for members. Again, departments short on resources will need to rely on leaders to empower members, give them praise and meaningful roles, and give them the space (and forgiveness) to make mistakes. It will mean creating an environment where firefighters are accountable to one another as much as they are to the chief or the SOPs.
The report also identifies our need to be more inclusive, a long-standing problem for many departments. The authors call for us to make a concerted effort to recruit firefighters who reflect the makeup of the community as well as well as understand how to serve different segments of our community. A more diverse fire department is one better able to problem solve because more diverse people bring a greater range of ideas to the table. And we are in the problem-solving business.
Fire department diversity cannot be mandated and cannot be achieved with quotas. It begins and ends with an open, accepting and supportive culture. That is something each of us has a hand in making happen.
Again, everything we do from fundraising, to retention, to training, to vehicle and facility maintenance, to continuing education, to call response and on scene capabilities springs from our culture. You cannot invest too much time in building and maintaining a strong volunteer fire department culture.
Professional sports, especially Major League Baseball, have for years been migrating their personnel and strategic decision making away from human experience and intuition and moving toward deep dives into big data set. The report points out that the fire service will need to be making its strategic decisions based on data analysis well before 2050.
The report breaks down its recommended initiatives into data collection, analysis and use in decision making. Step one for volunteer departments is to make sure you are collecting high-quality, high-quantity data. You can’t wait until you need it to start collecting it. While far from perfect, the National Fire Incident Reporting System is a good place to start. Each run needs to be accurately and completely recorded and entered.
There’s a good chance not every firefighter on the department will have the desire or necessary skills to do the data entry. As with equipment repair or incident command, figure out who can handle it and train them up on it.
Likewise, not everyone will have the skills to set up a records management system, ensure the data is secure and pull the appropriate information for strategic analysis. In fact, you may not have anyone up to those tasks. An outside vendor may be your best or only option.
Even if your department is new to the big data game, begin planning how the information can eventually be used to improve the department’s service delivery. The report advises to use data to assess all measurable aspects of what the department does. Such concrete information will be invaluable when funding issues arise — and they will arise. This numbers-based spending justification is also important for determining what resources to acquire and how to allocate those — be it fire station location or apparatus and crew deployment.
The report also addresses firefighter health and wellness issues. The toll firefighting takes on mind and body are nothing new, and volunteers are in no way immune to these tolls. Protecting firefighters’ mental and physical health should be a top priority for all fire departments now and over the coming 30 years.
For volunteers, keeping firefighters healthy and well depends on two previous key areas from the report — culture and data. Breaking down the stigma of mental health issues and supporting and holding each other accountable for health issues — like not smoking, staying in shape and wearing PPE — is a culture issue. Making sure the department knows which firefighters were exposed to toxic environments over their careers is a data collection issue to be sure.
The report urges departments to adopt fitness and wellness best practices as well as regular fitness testing policies. This is one of those “best for firefighter, department and community” policies. Being fit for duty is an individual responsibility, but getting those on board who scoff at their fitness responsibility comes down to culture. Members will more readily accept the change and responsibility if the culture is one of being accountable to and responsible for fellow firefighters.
The other component to keeping volunteer firefighters healthy and well is partnerships. Most suburban and rural departments simply don’t have the resources of metro departments for things like routine screening and free mental health care. One agency recently applied for federal grant funding to provide professional mental health services to all volunteer firefighters in their state at no cost to the firefighters.
It’s partnerships like that where resources are pooled to provide greater reach that are key to volunteers getting the same services as their career sisters and brothers. On a smaller scale, local fitness businesses may be willing to partner with departments to provide training, expertise or facility access.
And developing partnerships is another key area the report identifies. The report recommends expanding community response capabilities, improving relationships with internal and external agencies, and seeking a wide range of partners. Like any good marriage, these partnerships require a great deal of initial courting, relationship maintenance, communication and above all, trust.
The most pressing issue for volunteer departments in the near term will be funding. Finding partners who can provide additional revenue or in-kind services that reduce costs will be key to survival in 2021 and 2050. Having revenue coming in from different sources helps insulate the department against financial problems.
Volunteers are almost in a better position to develop these partnerships than are career departments because we are most often nonprofit and many of our members are employed in the community’s private sector. Firefighters’ employers are a great starting point for finding new partners.
Another important opportunity for volunteers is developing the community response capability. One strategy to offset the dwindling number of volunteers is to accept members who don’t fight fire. Allowing people to join who have special skills such as computer technology or marketing — or simply want a way to help their community — can ease the burden on those who do fight fire by taking on the time-consuming administrative and maintenance tasks.
For volunteer departments sustainability is both a critical issue and the culmination of the report’s other seven issues. Without successfully addressing the issues, volunteer fire service sustainability may not be attainable — in fact, many may not survive. The report authors listed nine initiatives to achieve sustainability.
One of the recommendations is for a federal commission to research how communities can improve volunteer fire service sustainability or transition to a different model. We should welcome all research that helps solve our wicked problems. But we should also take this as a warning — solve your problem or someone will solve them for you, and you may not like that solution. Expecting a broken model to continue in its broken state for the next 20 or 30 years is a classic “head in the sand” view. Don’t be that ostrich.
The report also recommends implementing a community risk-reduction program. This can be a challenge for volunteer and part-time departments without full-time staff. Here again is where partnerships play an invaluable role. There are plenty of risk-reduction resources available that can be adapted to your community’s needs. Vision 20/20 is a great starting place. Look for existing community-based groups or individuals who take these ideas from plan to reality.
Related: How to Assess Community Risk
Another of the report’s sustainability initiatives calls for revamping how firefighters are educated and trained. This has long been a problem for volunteer and part-time fire departments. For years we’ve wrestled with the necessity of high-quality, high-quantity training versus the overwhelming demands it places on volunteers’ time and on departments’ ability to deliver training.
At present, there is no magic bullet. For all its bells and whistles, online training platforms are not fully proven to be an effective way to train adult learners — especially for something as skills-dependent as firefighting. And virtual-reality training options are still not fully developed and accessible to all departments. Daunting as the training issue may be, to be sustainable, we will have to innovate, try new things, evaluate and quickly move off what doesn’t work.
And that “assess, plan, try new things, evaluate and change based on that reassessment” will be how we must approach the next 30 years. As good as this report is, the volunteer fire service does not have a Merlin by its side to prophesize the future — we either eat the cake or be eaten by it.