In 2010, the number of structure fires in the United States was less than half of what it was 30 years before. Yet most fire departments report that their call volumes are steadily increasing from year to year.
So what's causing the increase? EMS, technical rescue, hazardous materials and a vast array of other emergency situations. Even as this is being written, the news continues to reveal additional information about the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo.—another situation where fire department resources were used in a nonsuppression setting.
In assuming these additional responsibilities, we must ensure we're providing competent service, regardless of the discipline. So how do we do that? How do we ensure that we're well-rounded responders, able to successfully handle an all-hazards response mandate?
The challenge for management is to ensure that funding is available for the necessary equipment and training. Attempting to provide a specialized service without proper equipment or training is certainly a recipe for disaster. For those responding on trucks, we must commit to ensure they've acquired the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to successfully and safely operate in specialized environment.
In short, train, train and then train some more.
Skill maintenance is crucial for high-risk/low-frequency events. Personnel who aren't regularly called on to function in a specialized response environment will need to train frequently to ensure skill degradation doesn't occur.
And that's just for what we're facing now. The big question is, "What's next?"
Departments in some areas of the country are entering the realm of public health, while others are absorbing their cities' codes-enforcement elements. The WMD/terrorism threat isn't going away, and the emergency-management role in many departments is growing.
In many cases, taking on additional responsibilities may be a life-or-death decision for our organizations. With budgets tightening, finding ways to provide value for the tax dollar is extremely important. I find it hard to believe that, especially for smaller career departments, people are surprised by budget cuts and station closures when the only service they provide is suppression.
When it comes to specialized services—whether response related or nonemergency services—fire department personnel must understand that providing these services increases the value of our organizations to the citizens we serve.
That may be a difficult concept to grasp for the firefighter who signed up just to ride the BRT and go to fires. The company officer must work to ensure that personnel understand we will always go to fires, but to make sure that happens, we must take on roles beyond our "fire department" namesake.
Brian Collins is a lieutenant with Brentwood Fire & Rescue in Pleasant View, Tenn.