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The 21st Century Fire and Emergency Services

In July of 2020, the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA) and the Center for Public Safety Excellence(CPSE) released the 21st Century Fire and Emergency Services Report. I had the honor of co-chairing that report with Pat Martel, a former City Manager and Past President of the ICMA. This report culminates several years of discussion on the need for such a document and almost three years of work to develop. With that said, it is reflective of what we know today and what we believe will likely occur in the future. But one thing is sure: changes will happen and will do so at a rate our profession has yet to experience. As we move farther into the 21st century, the speed of change will continue to accelerate primarily due to new developments in technology, the robust use of data, and the two latest generations that will be entering the workforce, who will be the most technologically adept of any generation to date, as they have been immersed in the use of technology since birth. 

Over the last decade, local governments have witnessed an emerging set of issues, realigning the services provided, the political dynamic within the community we serve, new sets of expectations from the electorate, a demand for greater transparency, and continual shifting of services from the Federal and State level to local government.  

The fire and emergency services today is primarily built upon its traditional role of combating fires. It was not until the 1970's that the service expanded its role with the addition of EMS, Hazardous Materials response, Urban Search and Rescue, specialization in wildland firefighting, community risk reduction, and a variety of homeland security missions. From a perspective of the fire service's history, these were significant and rapid changes in the approximate timeframe of 30 years. Today, our fire responses account for approximately four percent of all fire and emergency service calls. Our service deliveries continue to expand to include Mobile Integrated Health Care, community paramedicine, behavioral health, and social services support. If we take a 30-year horizon look into the future, what will the forces of change impact what the fire and emergency services will become in 2050?  

In the development of the report, eight overarching themes emerged. These are areas of such importance that each individually or collectively, are likely to create significant change and have lasting impacts upon the existing fire and emergency services. These Critical Issues will be transformative on the profession in the next 30 years and demand attention if the fire and emergency services to remain viable in the future.  

  1. Re-identification of the fire and emergency services  
  2. Culture of the profession 
  3. The robust use of data 
  4. Health and Wellness threats  
  5. Opportunities for partnerships  
  6. Sustainability challenges 
  7. Technology advancements and adoption 
  8. Inclusiveness of the fire and emergency services. 

The majority of fire and emergency service agencies in the United States use the name fire department. It is what our history is built upon; it is a legacy name that dates back to the formation of the first fire companies in America. It often defines the image of the service, the people in it, and it is a significant element of the culture of the service. Today, the fire and emergency services are so much more than an agency that just extinguishes fire. The fact of the matter is, fire suppression has become a small part of what the fire services does today; while critically important, it is not reflective of the role and responsibilities of what is occurring daily in most organizations. Any business's identity is an essential and powerful tool to positively impact your customers' minds and help in recognition of the organization's mission and purpose. The fire and emergency services are no different.  

Culture is defined as the set of predominating attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that characterize a group or organization. Professional culture is the pervasive values, beliefs, attitudes, and actions representing a profession and influencing its operations. It often reflects the collective perception of right or wrong, good or bad, or desirable or undesirable actions and characteristics found within an organization. The fire service culture is often built upon the traditions of the profession, which in a time of change, can make it reticent to accept new ideas, be able to adapt quickly, and at times will create decision process that is based on the past, and what not is occurring today and will occur in the future. 

Culture can impact a profession and an organization's decision processes, which is why this is such an important issue as we advance. Fire and emergency service organizations in the future must be able to adapt quickly to their changing environment, and to do so, will have to develop an organization DNA that embraces innovation, change, and has developed a workforce with the emotional intelligence to understand the need to do so that it will require a shift in the culture in most of the fire and emergency service organizations today.  

Robust Use of Data 
While there have been significant improvements in data use over the last twenty years, the fire and rescue service has just scratched the surface of the full potential of using data effectively to manage their daily operations and make decisions based upon each agency's outcomes to achieve. Today's fire and emergency services have a much greater ability to analyze data toward the results the organization is trying to achieve, assist during emergency incidents, and help focus community efforts in reducing community risk. However, over the next 30 years, the amount of data, the computing power, the analytical ability to analyze data and make needed changes will need to occur much more rapidly. The robust use of data will likely change the very way we deploy our resources, the approach to community risk reduction, alter our dispatching processes, the data we collect, and the organization's overall operation. It will tell what is working and what is not, disprove many of our intuitive beliefs, and validate others. The fire and emergency services will need the culture to adapt, innovate, and change to the information much faster than most organizations can do today. Failure to do so may lead to outsourcing many of the existing services provided by the fire and emergency services today to other organizations that will use that information to provide the most efficient and effective services to the customer while improving outcomes.  

Health and Wellness 
Firefighting is a dangerous profession and possesses risks that can have long-lasting and often fatal consequences. In the past two decades, that has been a concerted effort to address the line of duty deaths and the overall health risk factors that have been found to contribute to many illnesses in firefighting personnel. While exposures are often a daily occurrence in the fire service, other contributing factors impact firefighting personnel's health and wellness. Those factors include sleep disruption and sleep deprivation, the continual visualization of dealing with and witnessing tragic events, working of multiple shifts, less staff, and higher call volumes, are all contributing and predisposing firefighters to many health-related issues including increased rate of many diseases, psychiatric disorders, and suicides. The increase in emergency responder health issues, including PTSD, suicides, and other health-related problems, is critical for the profession. The profession needs to create a culture that will embrace research on how sleep deprivation is impacting the ability to perform, increases the likelihood of mistakes, and is harmful to the health of the individual over their career, minimize the exposure to personnel with the use of technology, focus for decontamination beyond the fire ground, to include all the transport mechanisms (e.g., PPE, hand tools, hose, and apparatus) and facilities where exposure is intensified because of extended time frames and other exposure pathways (e.g., respiratory, dermal, digestive), and engage in comprehensive physical and mental health testing to identify health-related issues early.  

As the fire and emergency services look to the future, an opportunity exists to strengthen relationships throughout their communities to provide more efficient and effective services. Many calls for service are either responded to by an emergency unit, initially handled, that could be handled more effectively by another agency. An example of this is those who frequently call 911 for assistance when the call is non-emergent, need some assistance in their home, and have no other resource to obtain the help they need. The fire and rescue service is well-positioned to be a hub of service provision for many disparately scattered services. There are significant opportunities to create partnerships with health care providers, mental health services, and social services that would leverage each agency's talents with a focus on improving the customer experience.   

Sustainability focuses on meeting the present's needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. So, whether we are speaking to environmental, economic, or social issues, the sustainability factors associated with each are essential in respect to what the future may look like and how it may impact future generations. The same holds for organizations. Organizational sustainability is equipping the organization today with the talent, insight, and change strategies necessary to face the unique challenges faced in the near future. For many fire and emergency services, sustainability has become a critical issue due to several different factors. Over the past two decades, there has been a continual shifting of services provided or funding locally by the federal and state government, which have become the primary responsibility of local government. 

Funding at the local level has been challenging for many organizations to keep up with the escalating call volume and the inability to hire more people because of the rising cost and the shifting of services and associated costs from the federal and state to local government. The unfunded pension liabilities in many states, shifting of cost to local government, and aging infrastructure in the fire and emergency services are placing significant economic strains on many organizations to meet today's basic needs, let alone being able to plan and meet the demands anticipated in the future. Sound fiscal planning and action, and innovation will be vital elements to the fire and emergency services sustainability in the future.  

The technology development of the last thirty years has been profound and has led to the increased speed of development of the new technologies that are in use today. A quick look back at what has been developed over the last thirty years is quite remarkable. But what does the future hold? Think Artificial Intelligence (AI), Smart Buildings-Smart Cities, Drones, Big Data Analytics, Smart Transportation Systems, Autonomous Vehicles, Robotics, Medical Biometrics, just to name a few. Technology will ultimately significantly impact the ability to discern information much more quickly during a call than exist today. This precision will help facilitate a more accurate level of response on calls, not only on the type and number of units sent but also on training, education, and skills needed to address the situation. This will cause organizations to incorporate other skill sets to meet the service demands more efficiently and effectively. We are living in a formative time where automation and thinking machines have replaced humans doing the task. While we cannot predict the future, we know that as technology utilization increases, it will be the future employee who will have to adapt to those changes and ultimately lead today's organizations through that transformation.  

Communities have continued to become more diverse in the cultures served, the languages that are spoken, and the norms of the people who reside in them. The personnel who make up the workforce for many fire and rescue service agencies often are not reflective of the people they serve. A workforce demographic that is reflective of the community makeup helps build trust with the community and promotes a better understanding by the agency of the community's various cultures. This is not about establishing targets but understanding the need to create an inclusive culture, one that values individuals for the abilities they bring to the organization. While firefighting is now a relatively small part of what agencies do, it is the most technically and physically demanding. Many fire departments are working with underrepresented groups to prepare them for the rigorous testing processes. Suppose the fire and rescue service hopes to attract the right workforce to deliver the services conducted. In that case, changes in culture and current perceptions are necessary to achieve more representative service. In 2018 the career fire service the average percentage of firefighters by gender, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity was: 

  • Caucasian & Other 82.5% 
  • Black or African American 8.4%  
  • Asian 1.1% 
  • Hispanic or Latino 8.0% 
  • Male 95.3% 
  • Female 4.7% 

Bring this home to your department. What is the race, ethnic, and gender demographic makeup of your department? Now, look up what that same demographic breakdown is for the community(s) you serve. Is your workforce representative? In most departments in the US today, they are not even close. In 2020, this issue has become a highly charged and debated subject at all levels of society. Organizationally, every fire and emergency service provider must establish a plan on how they intend to rectify this issue and by when. This issue cannot be left to the next generation of leadership to begin to resolve. Inclusiveness in the fire and emergency services will become a much more pronounced issue in the near future. Organizations need to not just talk to the issue but must embrace it as one of their on-going strategic matters to ensure that their workforce represents the population they serve. 


Chief Randy R. Bruegman (Ret), CFO, FIFIReE, IAFC President, 2002-2003 

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