The acceptance of conflict: 30,000 different ways of running our fire departments
If we can’t decide what’s best for the fire service, then someone else will decide for us
In a recent presentation to a corporate group looking to help reach fire departments, I discussed the nearly 30,000 fire departments across the United States with their 30,000 ways of doing business – a situation that drives much of our internal fire service strife.
Think about it: 30,000 first-dues, 30,000 ways of administering discipline, 30,000 ideas on what’s best for the fire service, 30,000 ideas on the best fire engine design, 30,000 ideas about how to integrate this or that and do everything we do. I do realize this is a bit of an exaggeration, as there are departments that share operational policies, dispatch systems and concepts … at least until the next politician appoints the next fire chief.
We generally follow the NFPA firefighting, inspections and equipment standards; however, I submit that’s where our peaceful coexistence essentially stops. What uniform to wear, which line to pull, which tactical protocol to follow, roof/no-roof, which test/certification to accept – you name it, we have conflict over it. From a management perspective, it seems like we’re always figuring out a way to force another test, to force another point of failure, instead of strategically planning for success. I find myself constantly asking if this is the last test.
This culture inevitably creates conflict, and the news of such conflict manifests daily on our screens and around fire station kitchen tables. Unfortunately, we tend to shrug our shoulders and roll with the punches while this dysfunctional culture continues to grow. We continue to accept the conflict as the way of doing business.
The 30,000-foot look
This type of culture signals acceptance to those “looking down on us from on-high” (regulators, grant coordinators, legislators, etc.). Our disagreements and dysfunctions allow the powers-that-be decision-makers to hail their decisions as being “in the best interest of the fire service,” partially because we – the actual members of the fire service – can’t agree on what “the best interest of the fire service” actually is.
In the article “What’s the next ‘giant leap’ for the fire service?” I suggested that our end-state should include a single federal parent or administration – one that provides a coordinated approach to public safety services.
The U.S. Fire Administration was established after the 1973 America Burning report to provide for the needs of the 30,000 different fire departments (which includes many EMS agencies in one form or another). For this oversight to be effective, we MUST push for the recognition of a Public Safety Administration that recognizes the all-hazards and consolidated services currently overseen by FEMA (firefighting), Interior (forestry firefighting) and transportation (EMS). Imagine robust consolidated training academies with regional National Academy campuses. Personally, I believe law enforcement should also be a part of the Public Safety Administration umbrella, but I suspect that’s a grouping most are not ready to accept.
Maybe you don’t like the name Public Safety Administration. Well, then let’s retool the focus of Community Risk Reduction to encompass fire, EMS and law enforcement. Such an administration would provide the framework for true measures of effectiveness across the board.
Back on the ground
We need to solve some of the legacy issues that haunt the fire service (i.e., robust background checks, physicals, mutual aid (mostly the lack of mutual aid), tactical disagreements rooted in old school vs. new school approaches, the acceptance of delayed or “failed” responses, and the universal understanding of what it means to uphold the public trust. I say that to acknowledge that I’m not nearly naïve enough to believe the single act of convergence at the three-headed federal level will solve all of our problems; however, that single action would provide one strategy stream for solving many of the issues we face daily.
Various regions of the country have made significant strides to solve some of these problems. I offer the National Capital Region as one system that is striving to consolidate policies and response protocols that will allow apparatus to automatically cross county, city and state borders routinely. The Washington area Council of Governments organization includes a Fire Chiefs subcommittee (among many other genre committees) that helps facilitate many of advances that the area departments have implemented and continue to fine-tune.
Once an unbelievable advance, many of the National Capital Region’s PSAP jurisdictions are in the process of a CAD-to-CAD (C2C) implementation that allows each participating PSAP to have visibility on each other’s apparatus availability. Even the District of Columbia, which has long been a holdout from the C2C project, has begun C2C implementation. When complemented by policy/response agreements, C2C ostensibly creates a viable platform for regional automatic mutual-aid solutions. Let’s be clear: It is not a panacea and neither C2C nor automatic aid are universally accepted yet. The C2C project breaks down many of the barriers raised, whether artificially, jurisdictionally or otherwise, and – wait for it – can provide for the closest appropriate resource to respond to Grandma Jones’ call for service.
In that last statement lies one of our local disagreements (mostly street-level disagreement), that is, what constitutes the “appropriate resource” response to Grandma Jones’ call: four engines, five engines? Due vs. arriving? A staff of three, four or five? Water tanks with 500, 750, 1,000? It feels like Groundhog Day just thinking about the prospect of that discussion thread – more conflict that we blindly accept.
We really do have MUCH more in common than our differences present; however, we continue to accept the conflict. It’s business as usual, and as I have warned before, failure to adapt will ultimately lead to our extinction. Change may stink, but I assure you, extinction will be far worse.