5 debate-worthy questions for fire and EMS members

Debating key issues helps ensure evolution and relevance

By Thomas E. Poulin, Ph.D., and Hilda Moses, Ph.D.

Professions are marked by their ability to remain relevant – to be able to identify and meet the challenges of a dynamic environment. Despite the irreverent humor associated with phrases like “200 of tradition unimpeded by progress,” the fire/EMS service has evolved in many ways over the years, integrating EMS, special operations and advanced technologies.

Like other professions, the fire/EMS service needs to continue to evolve and adapt. One activity associated with a focus on continuous improvement is an ongoing debate about the profession and its environment. Such debates may reaffirm current processes, illuminate the need for change, or challenge our beliefs, contributing to further debate.

Thought leaders are active members of the discipline who also seem to represent all organizations in the field. Who are the current fire service thought leaders?
Thought leaders are active members of the discipline who also seem to represent all organizations in the field. Who are the current fire service thought leaders?

With this in mind, the following five questions can be used to generate discussion as to how we, as members of the fire/EMS service, can be as relevant, as professional and as valued by the community as possible.

1. Are we the fire service or fire services?

We often seen the term “fire service” used in professional publications, as if we were a monolithic organization with shared values and practices. While those outside the system might see all fire organizations as the same, we know there are distinct differences among organizations.

The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) reports there are over 30,000 fire departments in the United States, but the number does not include EMS-only agencies, private sector fire protection, allied industries (manufacturers) or associations (unions and other professional groups). We see differences between urban, suburban and rural areas. We see differences between career, combination and volunteer agencies. We see regional differences based on local conditions, local history and state laws. We are, in many ways, anything but a single entity. We may be far more like healthcare consortiums, which include public and private entities, non-governmental organizations, with government involvement at the local, state and federal level.

If we accept that we are the fire services (plural), we must explore means to maximize our abilities to operate and cooperate with one another, and not just during emergency operations. This is not about changing formal structures, but rather it is about building and sustaining relationships in all areas where, united, we will have greater power over our environment. This might include finding means to work together on areas of common interest, such as training, communications, officer development, purchasing, planning and in the development of associated codes and ordinances – all activities where our collective strengths may support greater outcomes for ourselves, our organizations and our communities.

2. Do our health and safety practices align with the goal of “everyone goes home”?

It is not uncommon to hear fire/EMS personnel making claims concerning the inherent dangers of the profession. Sometimes such claims are made in recognition of existing hazards and risks, but all too often the claims seem to be made with a sense of pride, seeking to make ourselves “special” in the minds of ourselves and others. There may be a strong rationale in this, contributing to a healthy and strong organizational culture across the discipline. However, there may be negative ramifications to these claims as well.

We must consider whether our practices align with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation mantra, “everyone goes home,” as there are signs to suggest an incomplete alignment:

  • We see this in policies providing awards for dangerous activities, but not for professional performance.
  • We see this in our professional journals where images are often accompanied with a disclaimer the images do not necessarily reflect safe, acceptable practices.
  • We see this in policies where there is extensive investigation of equipment damage, but only reporting of firefighter/EMT injuries.
  • We see this in policies and practices related to firefighter fatalities, focusing more on funeral practices than on preventing such an event from occurring again.
  • We see this in station discussions where any challenging of the status quo on practices is met with derision and scorn.

There may be some resistance to this question – push back on its relevancy. However, open, objective discussions that engage both our professional passions and our critical thinking may contribute to a safer work environment, more effective practices and a reduction in the human tragedy and economic costs families, friends and communities face in the aftermath of a work-related firefighter injury or fatality.

3. How does education and certification reinforce the professionalism of fire/EMS as a discipline?

In all states, to provide emergency medical care or act as a law enforcement officer, you must hold a professional certification. However, despite the complexity and criticality of the role, in most states, there are no mandated certification requirements to be a firefighter, and where such a mandate exists, it typically applies only to paid personnel. Fewer require certification to be a fire officer at any level.

This is not about the availability of training programs. Most states have a robust, statewide training program based upon a recognized model. Mid- to large-size fire/EMS agencies across the country frequently have a well-qualified, staffed training function. Many of these agencies have very specific training requirements for each position, but that, coupled with individualized local operational practices, creates a patchwork of inconsistencies that might affect service delivery, and that, from the outside, might make the discipline seem unregulated.

While the concern for external perceptions might seem of little consequence, it is important to remember that those perceptions drive public support for authority, funding and prevention efforts. The public tends to view professions as tied not only to professional certification and licensure, but also to education, especially at the higher levels, yet many in the fire service routinely argue against mandating educational requirements, either for the discipline or for their own agency.

While one can make arguments on both sides of the issue for their own agency, based on local needs and expectations, the societal trend has long been for increased educational expectations for mid- and upper-level positions in a discipline. This issue must be debated to support the continuing professionalization of the discipline.

4. Are we as proactive as we should be or do we default to reactive approaches?

If you ask fire/EMS personnel what their profession entails, many will argue that they spend their times preparing for and responding to emergencies or disasters. And if we were to ask members of the public the same question, their response would largely be the same.

It’s important to recognize that such a sentiment suggests a reactive mindset, not a proactive one, which means we might be shortchanging efforts to mitigate or prevent emergencies from happening in the first place. In reality, we might be more effective in serving our communities if we assumed the mindset that when an alarm is sounded, we have in some way failed. We have either not mitigated a hazard fully or we have not prepared ourselves or the community to deal with the issue as effectively as we might have. As such, are we formally or informally, prioritizing reactive approached to fire and EMS issues?

It is not uncommon for fire/EMS agencies to mention prevention or education in their mission statement, but the reality is often different. When funding must be cut, prevention and training are often the first to feel the brunt of the budget axe. In many agencies, assignment to prevention is often viewed as a form of punishment, or least as some form of personnel holding area when no other options are available. Risk reduction activities are frequently limited for company-level personnel, and organizational reward systems are often focused more on operational response activities than on risk reduction functions.

If fire/EMS agencies are paying word service to risk reduction, more than they are making it a priority, we might find that we are always playing catch-up in a reactive environment, which might not be the type of services our communities value the most.

5. Who are our current and future thought leaders?

Most industries have clearly identified thought leaders, or they have had at some point. These thought leaders are active members of the discipline who, though they represent a single agency, also seem to represent all organizations in the field. Such thought leaders are visionaries. They are those who may speak to those across the spectrum, discussing what the discipline is, the challenges it faces, and the direction it must go.

In most industries, a question about who constitutes the current and future thought leaders will yield a small number of names. They are the names of those whose books many have read, of those who headline all conferences, and of those who hold their opinions of such import that they must be reflected upon and addressed.

Do the fire services have such a leader? The USFA has a role, but it is limited by the constraints of the office. We might look to the staff of professional journals or the speakers at conferences, but many of them seem to focus on specific functions, such as rescue, EMS, hazmat or leadership. Even if we argue these individuals are thought leaders, one might question how broad their influence is when the majority in the fire service cannot identify them or their views.

There remain a number of professionals, experts and authors from decades past who still bring great weight to our internal discourse, but many of them have long retired from active service. This is not to question the integrity, credibility or professionalism of anyone, but it should take us back to the question of who speaks for the discipline now. The most powerful thought leaders are those facing the same challenges as all others in the field. This increases their credibility, their power and their influence to help us shape ourselves for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Time for debate – for advancement

Some of these questions may be viewed as meaningless in some organizations. If so, it might be because the organization has developed fully, staffed by mature, professional leaders who have addressed, or who are addressing these very points. Some of these questions might be disturbing to some. We hope so.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Perhaps, at times, our communities would be better served if we all became less reasonable in discussions such as this. Instead of seeking to preserve traditions and the status quo, we should challenge ourselves to be more professional, more effective and more efficient. In doing so, we will be supporting the develop of more disaster-resilient communities.

About the authors

Thomas E. Poulin, Ph.D., has over 30 years in the fire services, currently teaching in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer program. He also serves on Capella University’s public administration faculty.

Hilda Moses, Ph.D., retired from the U.S. Air Force as a master sergeant and has served as a fire chief in the USAF and for several Department of Defense contracted fire protection agencies.

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