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Greening the Fire Service Future

Return to the June 1, 2012 issue of On Scene

IAFC On Scene: June 1, 2012



Special Coverage: IAFC On Scene is please to present an extended feature on this topic.

The IAFC's Environmental Sustainability Committee is an outgrowth of the staff-level Green Team created two years earlier by CEO and Executive Director Mark Light. Intended as an information clearinghouse, it exists to help fellow IAFC members along the green learning curve, “so every fire chief doesn’t have to research all these things themselves,” as Chief Duyck puts it.

When Chief Mike Duyck, chair of the IAFC’s Environmental Sustainability Committee (ESC), was asked what kind of reception his panel’s topic has received among the IAFC membership, he replied, “I don’t think it’s a subject area that’s widely embraced yet. It’s an area they have some knowledge of, but not a lot of them are worrying about this stuff.”

There are plenty of other worries pressing in on chiefs these days—subsistence budgets, for example. “Some say sustainability right now means being able to meet payroll,” says Duyck, chief of Tualatin Valley (Ore.) Fire and Rescue (TVFR). “What we’re talking about here is a culture change,” he adds.

And the fire service doesn’t exactly welcome culture change with open arms. Worse, environmental sustainability may be looked on as a bleeding-edge topic with extremely wide implications, giving it an imposing learning curve.

So should we think the fire service will look any different five years from now, in terms of green issues, than it looks today?

One reason is that going green is a way to help address that top-of-the-pile concern of tight money—and progress can be made for no more out-of-pocket costs than falling behind does. (More on that in a moment.)

Another reason is that those who ultimately fund the fire service—government officials, taxpayers and donors—increasingly expect environmentally responsible behavior. Fire departments see more and more evidence of this as they respond to incidents involving hybrid and electric cars, photovoltaic cells and recycling plants.

And hazard planning, confronted with more frequent and more extreme weather events, is being forced into a new paradigm, argued a 2010 article in Emergency Management. It quoted Missy Stults, adaptation manager of ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability: “We can’t plan based on historical situations anymore because history is literally being changed.”

Environmental sustainability “is a huge issue in local government,” says Chief Duyck. ICLEI’s global membership of more than 8,000 jurisdictions includes 531 cities, towns and counties across the United States. When the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) did a survey on green priorities in 2010, more than 2,000 local governments responded. While the economy is clearly the standout issue in their jurisdictions (68.3% named it a high priority) and climate change is not a priority (46.3%), both energy conservation (45.7%) and the environment (40.7%) are deemed a priority. Green jobs (41.8%) were somewhat a priority, not quite tied by social justice but ahead of housing for all income groups and public transit.

The concern for sustainability isn’t a West Coast phenomenon alone. A smaller 2010 survey, sent to government agencies by the Midwest-based civil engineering firm Baxter & Woodman, found that 40.8% of respondents—mostly from Illinois and Wisconsin—consider it extremely important to incorporate sustainable practices into their communities and projects.

Private-sector leaders are also beginning to see environmental sustainability as a competitive necessity. Like chiefs, they still face more pressing issues, according to the MIT Sloan Management Review, which conducted its third annual sustainability global executive survey last year; 4,700 managers responded to the survey.

According to the survey, 40% of their organizations have changed their business models as a result of sustainability; 68% increased their commitment to sustainability in the past year. That’s a dramatic increase from 2009, when only a quarter of respondents said that. And when asked how they expect their organization’s commitment to sustainability to change in the year ahead, 74% expected it to grow—also a big increase over the 2009 survey.

According to Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute and director of Columbia University’s M.S. in Sustainability Management, “A decade from now, all excellent managers will be sustainability managers. Just as the definition of excellent management today includes effective financial, human and information management, soon it will also include effective sustainability management.”

On the consumer side, National Geographic’s Greendex measures behavior in 65 areas related to housing, transportation, food and consumer goods across 17 countries. Although Americans rank as the least environmentally responsible, according to the 2010 figures, they registered one of the three largest increases in green behavior over 2008. “Both cost considerations and environmental concerns motivated consumers to adopt more environmentally sustainable behavior,” the summary said.

In a struggling economy, the information about adopting green practices needs to include why sustainability is financially doable. The ESC is working, for example, on creating a web-based budget matrix to outline options, costs and benefits of the many green actions available to fire departments.

While the learning curve is daunting, money isn’t an excuse anymore. For the most part, “we’re not asking [departments] to spend anything,” says Chief Duyck, and on some types of investments, the payback is as short as a year.

Solutions already in place in some fire departments range from rainwater capture to building retrofits to videoconferencing, and from reduced apparatus idling time to selling solar-generated electricity to the local utility company. TVFR sends a single paramedic in an SUV for low-risk calls, with an 80% lower operational and maintenance cost per mile than an engine response. TVFR has four fire stations that are certified as meeting the standards of  the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for efficient use of resources in building construction (or retrofit), operation and maintenance. Three meet the LEED Gold standard and one the Silver.

Arlington County, Va., requires at least LEED Silver certification for all new county buildings, and the fire department there has one such station and one designed and built to LEED Silver earlier but not certified. Fire Chief James Schwartz says, “The lesson from both these projects is that it’s not hard to adjust to these requirements. We can adapt.”

There’s no functional difference between the LEED stations and older ones, yet utility costs can run 40–50% lower, Schwartz says. He points out that Arlington’s weather is “hot and muggy in July and August and September. It’s not like we haven’t air conditioned the building.”

The budget benefits suggest there’s good reason for chiefs to embrace environmentally sustainable behavior, regardless of how they or those around them view the controversial topic of climate change.

Disaster resilience adds another reason. Emergency Management magazine’s Elaine Pittman made this point about Portland, Ore. It’s a city where green technologies and activities are popular, such as community gardens, food preservation, water catchment—the makings of self-sufficiency in the days after a disaster. Bicycling abounds, and a service called Shift even brings people together to make residential moves using cargo bikes and bike trailers—vehicle types that could prove useful in disaster response and the aftermath, when fuel supplies might be low.

In Arlington County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., the environmental emphasis began 50 years ago when the county board began to plan for smart growth, deciding that density should be highest around the subway system then being built and taper to residential and open space from there. The county has been able to take a leadership role on the East Coast largely because of its highly affluent, educated and politically involved population.

The county intends for its experience and expertise to be shared by example. “We’re trying to model this behavior for the rest of the region, that this can be done,” says Joan Kelsch, the planner in charge of the county’s Green Buildings program. “It’s very doable, particularly in urban areas … Ten years ago, there was a cost associated with LEED—the learning curve, materials not readily available. But now a lot of those components are just standard practice.”

“If you get out into more rural areas and small towns, some of that sophisticated technology hasn’t necessarily reached there yet,” she adds, but new buildings can be oriented in relation to solar angles and prevailing winds and equipped with water-efficient fixtures. “Just a little thought ahead of time doesn’t have to cost a ton of money … Utility costs are not going down. Having buildings that are more energy-efficient will save real money over time—not five or ten dollars here and there.”

The environmental sensitivity embodied in LEED is part of a wider behavioral change, Chief Schwartz says. “Recycling bins are bigger now than normal trash, and at first people thought nothing of throwing bottles in normal trash. Part of this is generational. We’re bringing people into the service now who have been living with these issues.”

And they may become another source, if a subtle one, of pressure for the fire service to get greener. The ACFD has acted upon suggestions from members about greening, such as changing to motion-sensitive light switches to save electricity when fire units turn out, and installing high-flow hand dryers to eliminate paper towel waste. “I wouldn’t tell you I have a bunch of firefighters who are marching for environmental sustainability, but they’re savvy about this,” Schwartz says.

In the MIT Sloan executive survey, managers believed the top benefit of environmental sustainability for their organizations is “improved brand recognition.” Joan Kelsch thinks that’s an additional benefit for the fire service: “Everyone reveres the fire department, and if the fire stations are a model of sustainability, that’s a great opportunity.”

ESC Chair Duyck remarks, “People in our communities are going to be responsive to our change and critical when we don’t change.”

Like LEED, the culture change into an environmentally sensitive fire service is doable, Chief Duyck believes. “In five years, we’ll be well on our way to changing the culture. Behavioral specialists say it takes five to seven years. I’m hopeful we’ll have a good foundation established.”

Gloria Sturzenacker was editor of the FDNY’s training magazine, WNYF, for 6-1/2 years. Previously, she was managing editor of Fire Engineering, associate editor of Chief Fire Executive and city hall reporter for the public radio station in Peoria, Ill.

Green Action as Cost Aversion

The potential costs of environmental damage are illustrated in Cape Cod, where all drinking water comes from an aquifer that lies, in six separate “lenses,” vulnerable beneath a shallow cover of sandy soil. Although generally the water quality is considered excellent and well protected, last year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that earlier contamination to one groundwater under a military base will take up to 50 years to remove.

According to the engineering services firm Tighe & Bond, when a new toxic spill occurs, soil must be removed and tested, costing $20–40 thousand per spill, and if the contamination reaches the groundwater, cleanup costs jump to upward of $1 million.

ESC member Michael Walker, chief in Yarmouth, Mass., wanted to help avoid new contamination within the fire department’s scope of responsibility for spill control and the control of runoff from fire operations. Chief Walker worked with Gabrielle Belfit of Tighe & Bond’s Cape Cod office and with the EPA to develop a GIS-based program, called VIPER [http://www.iafc.org/MemberCenter/OnSceneArticle.cfm?ItemNumber=5778], adaptable to any community. VIPER integrates EPA aquifer data with GIS information, such as depth to groundwater, wetlands, wellhead protection zones and surface-water features. It then classifies terrain in 2,000-square-foot sections so response can be tailored to the precise location.

“Most departments carry spill kits that contain sorbent material, diking equipment, etc.,” Walker says. “Some of that small equipment can be placed more strategically on vehicles or in stations based upon VIPER risks. Hazmat teams could very easily tailor their response vehicle inventory to meet regional needs.”

Fire Apparatus: Green Beta Testers

“Fire apparatus are so technologically advanced, if something comes out, it gets put on fire trucks smartly—pretty fast,” says Stephen Wilde, president of Certified Fleet Services, Inc., and chair of the IAFC’s Emergency Vehicle Maintenance Section. Because the cost of innovative systems is small relative to the overall cost of the apparatus, “we’re the beta testers” for new truck technology. “Fire apparatus gets it first, because they’re built one-off.”

So while the direction of vehicle development might be apparent from the regulations that govern it, the specific solutions are less predictable. The fact that computerization plays a growing role in those solutions, though, means it’s a given that preventative maintenance becomes more complex.

In fire apparatus, it’s not fuel efficiency that’s the environmental issue (“because we’re doing a lot of short, hard runs, sitting in one place pumping,” Wilde says), but emissions. Federal regulations became stricter in 2007 and 2010 and will do so again in 2015. Anticipating the 2007 tightening, some departments accelerated apparatus purchases to avoid the higher prices. In the hard economy going into 2010, departments were more likely to delay, and they might well be in that position again as the 2015 update approaches.

The economy is also keeping transportation agencies in the country’s cool regions from making a desired environmental change, one that would help fire departments keep their apparatus in good condition. Municipalities “would all like to get rid of [road] salt. It’s hard on their roads, hard on their constituents,” Wilde notes. “But in the economy we’re in, they may not be able to do it. Anything that comes out new, it’s going to be expensive.” In suburban Chicago, where Wilde is located, “the departments that run on the tollways have a lot more corrosion issues, and I think that’s because they use a lot more salt on the tollways than they do the interstates and the streets.”


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