If Not Now, When?

In the early 1800s, the fire service was dominated by poor, uneducated Irish immigrants. The work was hard and dangerous and the pay was terrible, but it was the only work they could get. The Irish set the tone for the future of the fire service through bravery, honor, loyalty and hard work. This would be the fire service’s creed and remains so to this day. A proud tradition passed down from father to son: They took a job that no one wanted and turned it into one of the most desirable jobs on earth.

This tradition served us well for several hundred years, as they say: “200 years of tradition uninterrupted by progress.”

Consider the analogy of the frog in a pan of water; as the water temperature rises one degree at a time to a boil, the frog dies without ever knowing why. This is our predicament; we found ourselves in a boiling pot of complicated and ever-more sophisticated difficulties. We’ve relied on our tradition of bravery and hard work to get us through the tough times and we’ve played on our loyalty and horror when we’ve lost.

The water is boiling in the fire service; hard work and training alone are no longer enough to stay efficient or alive.

The fire service does well in the area of training. We have some of the best training programs of any industry out there. I believe every department has that selection of men and women who can click off any disaster put in front of them.

Fighting the fire and rescuing the victim isn’t the issue; this we do well. What we lack is the ability to see the future: where we’ll be in 10, 20, 50 and even 100 years from now.

I was hired recently to work with a group of 16 fire-officer candidates. I asked each one individually where they saw the fire service in five years. Each said, “Less fire and more EMS.”

I then asked where you see the fire service in 10 years, and each answered the same: “Less fire and more EMS.”

I then asked where they saw the fire service in 100 years—each one individually answered, “Less fire and more EMS.”

These fire officer candidates, by all fire service measures, were excellent leaders, brave, honorable, loyal and hardworking; they knew their craft. What they didn’t know was what the future of the fire service would be. They’re blind to their own future.

Training is about today: swinging the ax, rescuing the victim, fighting the fire, saving the baby. Education is about tomorrow: what the next community need is and where we fit. I believe it was the lack of vison that cost us programs like the minute clinics, home healthcare and medical taxis. These programs bring in millions of dollars in profit and are growing at a rate of 47% a year.

Mobile health and safety is our business, but this boat sailed away without us. We missed this boat because we failed to see the future; we failed to see a business opportunity that would sustain and support the fire service for years to come.

We can’t afford to miss these boats in the future.

The National Fire Academy has understood this dilemma for some time and has launched an ambitious platform called the Professional Development Symposium. The Symposium meets once a year on the NFA grounds in Emmetsburg, Md. Trainers and educators come from across the United States to discuss and plan the future of training and education in the fire service. But with no real power, their efforts are often ignored by special and individual interests.

Law enforcement is being taxed with tremendous and changing demands on their profession: increased hiring criteria, yearly professional development and formal college and university degrees. All these demands come with a price—to the department and to the individual. This is a simple economics: the higher the demand, the lower the supply; the lower the supply, the higher the pay. That high pay has to come from a limited pot of money—what we in conflict management call a fixed pie.

No one buys a house based on the quality of fire service in that area (not yet anyway). A family moving into an area looks at the quality of schools, the condition of the parks and roads and rise or fall in crime rates. With a fixed tax base, the local government will have to make some unpopular decisions to pay for the increasing costs associated with law enforcement.

I’m afraid, unless we adopt an attitude of a true profession, that the decision will negatively impact the fire service. With no real and enforceable requirements, the city will find the easiest and cheapest path to take is to take from the fire service, in the form of pay, equipment and manpower. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 85% of fire departments and 60% of firefighters in the United States are volunteer.

This uncomfortable question looms: if 85% of departments function as volunteers, some with over 350 firefighters and 15,000 calls a year, why not the other 15% of departments?

How do we become more valued tomorrow then we are today?

We are at a turning point in our profession; we can choose the professional path or remain that hardworking industry we started out as and have always been. The fire service has reached a point in its life where we must decide: do we continue as an industry or do we make that leap into a true profession, with formal education and licensure requirements?

Which road will serve our communities and the fire service better? Which will keep us healthier and more productive? Which road is more efficient? And which road has a better future for us?

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