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Company Officer Leadership: All-Hazards on the Street


Maybe you’re a first responder or a public-safety officer or a paramedic-fire-rescue technician or just a plain old firefighter. You could say you’re engaged in community risk reduction or all-hazards response or just answering calls for service. It’s now post-post-9/11and everyone has a different idea about what to call us and our activities. Probably the most common formulation today is all-hazards.

Why are we on the payroll or the volunteer rolls? The taxpayers are spending all that money for a reason. Fifty years ago, the firefighters were there to save lives and property from fire. Now we have all-hazards response, and a lot of people aren’t entirely sure what to make of that.

But the taxpayer still wants us there quickly, they want us to do a good job and they want us to be worthy of their trust. This is as deep and meaningful a commitment as local government can make.

So what does all-hazards mean to us, the people in the station and on the road, and how is it different from how things used to be?

It means the same thing it meant 50 years ago: saving lives and property. We may not append fire to that statement anymore, but we must be careful not to read anything into that. Even a 25% reduction in fires is nowhere close to the “no fires anymore” narrative we sometimes see.

The difference is now the public expects the local government to handle a wide array of emergencies and hazards that decades ago were handled more informally.

As a company or battalion officer, you need to understand that they’re going to call you, whether your department has a particular specialty team or not. Only the very largest agencies can maintain competency in all specialty areas and even then only with huge investments of time and money. We would do well to look to business for a model in this case.

There is a theory called the Long Tail that is often discussed in terms of internet or digital commerce. It describes the popularity of different types of widgets such that there is a mainstream appetite for widgets and a niche appetite for comparatively unusual widgets.

Think of a bookstore as compared to Amazon. The bookstore may stock the 300 most popular novels and this accounts for maybe 95% of demand. Amazon gives you access to the 30,000 less popular novels that account for the other 5%. That 5% is the long tail of demand.

Our responses are like that. If we graph them by frequency, we see the EMS calls, the alarm calls and the good-intent calls on the left side, looming over everything else.

Moving to the right we see the common but not everyday runs—maybe trash fires or full cardiac arrests. For most of us, the last thing on that graph that occurs with appreciable frequency is structure fires.

Then there’s a long tail stretching out of the room that includes all sorts of things we may or may not be able to imagine. That’s where, for most of us, a building collapse with trapped occupants, a train derailment, a plane crash, a mass shooter and a UFO invasion lie.

The question for you is, Who is your Amazon? You may not know how to mitigate a particular type of incident, but the taxpayers expect you to know at least three things:

  • How to not make it worse
  • Who to call to mitigate it and how to call them
  • What you can do until they get there

The company or battalion officer is the one on the spot with the radio and the authority to dispose of this incident. Administrative officers should have standard plans and procedures in place for all this, but if they don’t, there’s no reason those responding officers can’t do some personal preplanning to identify resources available in their region and state.

The key to understanding all-hazards response is recognizing that you own the long tail too.

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