During my 31 years on the Indianapolis Fire Department, I have noticed that our progress has often been driven by tragedy.
- St. Patrick’s Day 1890: the Bowen Merrill Fire claimed the lives of thirteen Indianapolis Firefighters. When the public realized their families received nothing to compensate for their deaths, it helped highlight the need for a pension system.
- February 5, 1992: Firefighters John Lorenzano and Woody Gelenius were killed in the Athletic Club Fire in downtown Indianapolis. Afterwards, the department realized many of our practices needed to be examined, and committees were formed that fundamentally altered and improved IFD’s training, equipment and deployment practices.
- September 11, 2001: our nation was attacked by terrorists. Although Indianapolis was nowhere near the tragic scenes, it altered how we view and deploy for major events like the Indianapolis 500 or this year’s Super Bowl.
The problem with progress driven by tragedy is that first a tragedy must occur.
Instead of waiting for tragedy to strike before we consider change, we should always look for ways to make our work safer and more effective. In the last two and a half years, Indiana’s fire service groups have been working together without needing a tragic impetus. In itself, the fact that we are working together is progress.
There are four major fire service groups in Indiana:
- Indiana Fire Chiefs Association (IFCA)
- Indiana Volunteer Firefighters Association (IVFA)
- Indiana Firefighters Association (IFA),
- Professional Firefighters Union of Indiana (PFFUI)
Together, we have named ourselves the Indiana Fire Alliance.
After decades of contention between the groups, we’ve opened the lines of communication and have found that we agree on far more than we realized. Chief Danny Sink (Goshen Fire Department) has stayed on past his term as president of the IFCA to continue to chair the Indiana Fire Alliance. Under his leadership, we’ve been able to agree on and subsequently work together in lobbying for several important pieces of legislation.
This year the Indiana General Assembly is mostly focused on labor issues, but we are hoping to address a few key fire issues, including:
- Unfunded mandates coming from the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and the General Assembly
- Making sure county 911 systems are properly funded
- Creating a statewide fire training system that includes a centrally located state fire academy with a strong outreach program
In past years, the fire associations have tried individually to improve the training situation in Indiana, but without a strong unified voice, we have fallen short. Perhaps together, we’ll succeed.
The fact is that we can’t leave it up to bureaucrats and politicians to determine the safety and health of our members. Many of them mean well, but simply don’t understand the intricacies of a profession to which they don’t belong. Others are driven by the desire to slash budgets or appeal to small but vocal groups of constituents without considering how their actions could lead to tragedies they’ll later regret.
Even after decades of mistrust, the fire service in Indiana has managed to create a new start, which will in turn create a stronger fire service. One of the guiding principles of the Labor-Management Initiative is to recognize that labor and management have a mutual goal of ensuring the wellbeing and safety of fire/EMS personnel and providing high-quality service to the public.
If our goals are the same, it’s easier to reach them by building partnerships and coalitions than by working alone. The leadership of the entities must start acting as the fire service does on any emergency scene—working together and communicating for a common goal.
To be truly innovative, we must stop waiting for a tragedy to dictate how we can improve the safety and well-being of the fire service. Instead, we must look at ourselves and see how far a movement towards trust, respect and understanding can take us.
Tom Hanify has served on the Indianapolis Fire Department for 30 years. He has been an Indianapolis Metropolitan Professional Firefighters Local 416 executive board member for 28 years, including nine as president. He has served as president of the Professional Firefighters Union of Indiana since 2002 and is an IAFC/IAFF LMI facilitator.