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Five Wicked Issues We Can No Longer Ignore

Return to the December 15, 2013 issue of On Scene

There's no shortage of challenges for the fire and emergency service today. In fact, many officers find the task of keeping up with today's issues daunting and not for the faint-of-heart. It's so easy to get caught in the minutia of working toward solutions to a steady stream of problems that we often work to cure the symptom rather than fighting the illnesses.

Those larger ills can be described as wicked problems, a term used to describe a problem that's difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory or changing requirements. The term wicked isn't used to denote evil, but rather its resistance to finding a solution. Solving one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.

Wicked problems are characterized by the following:

  • The solution depends on how the problem is defined and vice versa (i.e., the problem definition depends on the solution).
  • Stakeholders have radically different worldviews and different frames for understanding the problem.

Earlier this year, a group of forward-thinking leaders, convened at the IAFC's Strategic Planning meeting, were tasked with coming up with the top macro-level issues the fire and emergency service must address. The five main wicked problems identified were:

  • Cost efficiency
  • Data 
  • Deployment and staffing
  • Culture
  • Political acumen

Within the fire service, these problems are considered wicked not only because they meet the above definition, but also because each can be evaluated from various perspectives—for example, from both a volunteer and a career viewpoint. And while somewhat self-evident, each of these issues has been discussed—but remains unresolved—in the fire service community.

Since these issues were identified, I've presented on them at conferences a number of times. No matter where I go, I most often see officers nod their heads as the issues are framed.

Cost Efficiency – Citizens and public administrators expect services to be delivered in an effective and cost-efficient manner. Most citizens don't question firefighting effectiveness, but cost efficiency is a growing concern.

Different communities define efficiency differently; some desire simply a low dollar cost while others focus more on quantity or quality of services delivered. In either case, many fire departments haven't made a convincing case that they provide efficient services. A practical model that considers the diverse populations served and department types in place is needed to better demonstrate that the local fire department is providing cost-efficient operations.

Data – There remains a failure to collect, develop and disseminate meaningful and current fire service data that both helps inform national fire service policy and can help local government decision-makers.

The increasing use of data systems and improved capabilities to analyze large datasets demand a renewed effort to integrate existing systems to provide robust analysis and application. These research efforts should be directed towards answering other wicked problems.

Deployment and Staffing – Past efforts to define how best to protect communities, especially from a deployment and staffing perspective, have improved but haven't yet answered these questions to the satisfaction of stakeholders.

For example, the fire service has adopted various apparatus-staffing and response-time standards that aren't supported by widely accepted scientific data. Matching resources to demand to include the ability to surge for unusual events requires better data analysis and answers rooted in business-minded approaches.

Culture – The environment today's fire service operates in is constantly changing. Demands for service are dramatically different; the fire problem has changed and demands for EMS represent the major fire service activity. Generational differences between previous firefighters and those of tomorrow further emphasize the need to reevaluate the skills, competencies and attitudes required for the modern fire service at all levels.

Recognizing these environmental changes and addressing their impact requires a comprehensive approach.

Political Acumen – Fire service leaders are increasingly surrounded in political environments. Stakeholders including labor groups, elected officials and business interests all operate in and are influenced by political processes. Fire service leaders aren't prepared to be effective in that environment because of how we train, educate and select leaders. Technical competence and the clarity of command make navigating the grey areas of political processes difficult for many. Developing the capacity to work in a political environment requires skills not yet developed in most fire officers.

A Perfect Storm

Each wicked issue often builds on another. You can see that if deployment and staffing issues aren't resolved, it often centers on the lack or non-use of data, making deployment decisions to be often characterized as the fire and EMS department not being cost-efficient.

Add in the culture of some fire and EMS departments not wanting to look at new ideas and options, top it all with the fire chief not understanding the political dynamics involved and you have a perfect storm where all five wicked issues come down on fire service leaders like a ton of bricks.

What Now?

When you look at the problems, it's easy to say, "So what? We've had those problems for years," or to shrug your shoulders and ask what can be done about it.

We're in a new political environment that presents new opportunity and new danger. The impact of the issues can truly change how we as a profession do business. In the hands of the fire service, these issues can be resolved in a way that moves us as well as our communities forward. In the wrong hands, we may end up with so-called solutions that may be politically popular at the moment but disastrous for responder and public safety.

The IAFC is taking the first step toward finding solutions: making people aware of the issues and creating an environment for dialogue and discussion. Let's have a healthy debate and learn where we all stand on the issues.

As an officer at any level, bring these forward at a staff meeting one at a time. Discuss the issue and ask yourself how you answer these issues at a local level. If every local fire agency tackles the issues just in their hometowns, think how far ahead we'll be for a national discussion and debate.

In closing, we all know what the issues are—that's the easy part. Now it's up to the leaders of the fire and EMS service to frame the discussion and search for solutions.

The one thing we can guarantee is that if we don't solve these wicked issues, someone will solve them for us. Can we live with their answers?

Mark Light, CAE, is the IAFC's chief executive officer and executive director.

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