Just about 12 months ago, I had the honor of being sworn in as the 137th president of this International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC). This year has been an extraordinary experience and one that I'll cherish for the rest of my life. As I have traveled the nation and the world representing our association and fire service leaders, there have been a few things that have really hit home—thoughts I'll take away from this experience.
First, fire service leaders throughout the United States and around the world are an extraordinary group of men and women. They do jobs that are highly complex, mostly thankless and not very glamorous with little motivation other than a simple desire to serve their communities and rise to the next challenge. I am proud to call them colleagues and friends.
At the same time, I'm often troubled and worried by what appears to be a negative trend when it comes to professional ethics. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t learn of a chief officer who has misbehaved in some way—sometimes by breaking the law and sometimes by violating what I think are basic ethical principles of our profession. I don’t know if this is simply an artifact of the 24/7/365 news machine or easier access to information on the internet or if there really is a declining ethical and moral character in our profession. I pray it isn’t the latter and challenge each of us as fire service leaders to protect the public trust that has been so hard-won by the fire service.
Second, I'm impressed and grateful for the dramatic improvements we're making in keeping firefighters healthy and safe. Whether it's the growing understanding of the impact of cancer on our profession, the reduction in line-of-duty deaths or our increased understanding of fire behavior, a lot of extraordinary work has been done and many firefighter lives have been saved as a result.
At the same time that I am thankful for the progress made, I agonize over the thought that we still have so very much work to do. The incidence of cancer in the fire service is growing, not just steadily, but exponentially. We aren’t even close to complete understanding of the problem, much less a solution.
While total numbers of line-of-duty deaths have declined in recent years, I am mindful that the rate of firefighter deaths (expressed as a number of deaths per fire response) has actually doubled in recent years. We respond to fewer fires today, but when there is a fire, our members are actually twice as likely to be killed as they were just a few decades ago. That is a disturbing trend that needs attention. I pray we don’t spend too much time congratulating ourselves for past successes and that we will stay focused on what still needs to be done.
Third, in almost every setting I visit, I'm struck by the young, talented and capable fire service leaders who are coming along to follow us "old" chiefs. This profession continues to attract the brightest and best, and there are some extraordinarily talented leaders out there.
At the same time, I fear that the challenges before us are bigger and more complex than ever, while the leadership talent pool is shrinking. I fear our old traditional methods for preparing and advancing new leaders in the fire service aren't producing enough leaders to meet the need.
Every single day I read news clippings about fire chiefs who are struggling or failing—not because they aren’t good people who try hard, but because they were put in positions they weren’t prepared for. I pray we'll redouble our efforts at leadership development and devote a concerted effort to prepare the future fire service leaders who follow us.
Finally, I've come to appreciate, more than ever, the value and importance of a strong and effective professional association that can advocate for us on policy issues, provide practical tools we can use in our jobs every day and deliver educational programming that will help me be a better chief.
Those are the roles this IAFC serves today in our profession. We have an incredible group of member volunteers and professional staff who are doing excellent work each day to meet the diverse needs of fire service leaders across this country. Unfortunately, I see us too often waste precious time and energy on silly turf squabbles and differences of opinion, instead of focusing on the crystal clear issues and needs before us. I pray that the IAFC will continue to be supported by fire service leaders across this country and that our professional association will continue to thrive and prosper.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to serve. It has been a personal and professional privilege.
Chief William R. Metcalf, EFO, CFO
President and Chairman of the Board (2013-2014)