Chief Bill Metcalf Issues Challenges in His Farewell Address

Chief Bill Metcalf speaks to FRI 2014 attendeesOne year ago, I stood before you in Chicago and took the oath of office to begin my term as the president of the IAFC—your president. The days, weeks and months since then have been an extraordinary experience and opportunity—both personally and professionally. It has culminated in what has been now 19 years of membership in this organization and seven years in a leadership position.

I can tell you that it gives you a unique perspective on the fire service—one that not many have the chance to enjoy. In much the same way that no one really appreciates or understands what it's like to be a fire chief until you have pinned on the badge, the view from this position is one that is unique. I am very glad to have had the opportunity to share it with the 136 presidents who preceded me here at the IAFC.

A year ago in Chicago, we talked about the significant issues facing the fire service. IAFC CEO and Executive Director Mark Light spoke to you about the "wicked problems" facing the fire service, as identified in the IAFC's strategic-planning process.

Those issues are

  • our inability to articulate the effectiveness and efficiency of what we do; 
  • the lack of good data—and our inability to use the data we have in meaningful ways; 
  • our continuing challenge to make intelligent decisions about deployment and staffing—and the challenge of adjusting that deployment and staffing as our business changes and evolves; 
  • the challenge of dealing with culture—in our local departments and in the fire service at large—as it changes internally and is changed by external forces; 
  • and finally, the lack of political acumen or skills by fire service leaders—the price that we pay for that lack of political acumen—and figuring out how we can better prepare future fire service leaders to be skilled and effective in the political arena we live in.

I added to the IAFC's list four priorities of my own—issues that were of personal importance to me—issues that I wanted to emphasize during my time in office. Those issues included

  • a continuing and growing leadership crisis in the fire service that I don't believe we are paying enough attention to; 
  • the incredible lack of diversity and inclusiveness in the fire service—and the fact that the situation is getting worse, not better;
  • the growing threat posed by cancer in the fire service and our lack of understanding of both the magnitude and cause of the problem; 
  • and the continuing, unacceptable toll in line-of-duty deaths in the U.S. fire service—and my personal belief that it's within our power to reduce them to zero.

We raised these issues in Chicago—and I have talked about them in countless speeches, articles and individual conversations over the last year—not with the notion that any of them would be solved this year. Instead, they were raised with the idea that unless we talk about them, they'll be lost behind the day-to-day issues that each of us faces.

These big, thorny, hairy, difficult and ugly issues can't be forgotten. They won't solve themselves.

As I've discussed these issues during the past year, reactions have been fascinating. I've been told by more than one person that they don't agree with me and don't see the issues as needing any attention. I suppose I've heard that most often as it relates to the diversity issue. I've also been patted on the head—figuratively and in print—and been told, in effect, "That's nice Bill, but you just don't understand the fire service."

I think I've heard that most often as it relates to my desire to see LODDs reduced to zero or very near it. I've also gotten feedback that goes something like, "But you didn't tell us how to fix it (or how the IAFC is going to fix it)."

While these reactions have been surprising and disappointing, I guess the good news is that the vast majority of fire service leaders agree that these are the big issues facing our profession and they need our attention.

And that brings us to the big question: So what?

In every speech and conversation about these issues, I include a challenge: what are we going to do about these things. For every one of these issues, there's a national and international perspective, and there are things that can happen and are happening to make progress on these wicked problems.

However, for every one of them, there are things that each of us can be doing—should be doing—in our local departments to address them. They aren't challenges that someone else is going to solve for us; they're things we need to take on ourselves—personally—and commit to doing something to address them.

So, as my year comes to a close and I lose the opportunity to continue this dialogue at the national level, I want to close with a personal challenge to you—to every board member, chief officer, company officer, business executive and federal partner:

What are you going to do—at home—in your department to address these issues?

You don't need to solve them all at one time and you don't need to solve them all right now. But you do need to do something beyond ignoring them and leaving them for whoever follows you in your position.

I challenge each and every one of us to not forget these major, vitally important issues that are before us and to commit to action—not just talk—to solve them in our generation of fire service leadership.

As I step away, I do so with the knowledge that the IAFC is healthy. We have weathered the worst of the economic downturn and are firmly on solid footing for the future.

I also know that the IAFC is in good hands. I wish President Keith Bryant, 1st Vice President Rhoda May Kerr and 2nd Vice President John Sinclair nothing but the best as they assume these offices. They're good people who will serve you well. Give them your support.

Even more importantly, give the IAFC your support and involvement. It is your professional association that represents you and your issues at the highest level. However, the work doesn't happen by magic. It happens because members support the organization by getting involved, giving of their time, attending conferences, paying dues and giving something back to the profession that has given each of us an extraordinary career.

Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to serve. I could not have been here and had this opportunity without the incredible support I have received from home: The community that I serve; the incredible, talented and dedicated members of the North County Fire Protection District; and especially my best friend and biggest supporter, my wife Dotty.

It has also been a privilege to serve with the true leaders of the organization—the IAFC board of directors—thank you to each of you for your friendship and support.

And finally, I can't thank and acknowledge enough—the incredible staff at the IAFC—not just Mark Light who is an extraordinary leader, but everyone at every level, in every office and in every function at the IAFC. They are an incredible team and they're the ones who really make it all happen. I'm going to miss you most of all as I conclude my term. Thank you.

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