Each year the theme of the December issue is “Fire Service Forecast: What We See Ahead.”
It is a chance to pull out the crystal ball and make a guess as to what can be expected in the next 12 months. You can call it whatever you want-prognosticator, swami, seer, or whatever-but I prefer to look at it as sort of a “weatherman.” I can take my best guess, and no one really expects me to be accurate 100 percent of the time. There are many areas of the fire service to consider: service levels (i.e., staffing), apparatus, equipment, training, and firefighter safety.
From a service level perspective, staffing volunteer organizations will continue to be a challenge. This is for a variety of reasons, many of which have been documented by various organizations and individuals. Some departments will continue to maintain their volunteer staff at numbers necessary to provide good service, while a majority will continue to be challenged. On the career side, there should be an uptick as more departments continue to transition to combination or career departments because of volunteer organizations’ challenges. In other career departments, I expect to see increases in staffing in an effort to adequately staff for the required job responsibilities. Many departments lost personnel during the economic downturn and are still not back to where they need to be. Also, Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) grants continue, which help in this area.
Another outfall from the economic downturn was that many departments postponed apparatus purchases. As the economy improves, there should be efforts to replace aging apparatus and purchase additional vehicles for specific needs. The apparatus will have more technological advances-some mandated and some provided by the manufacturers. These should help to improve reliability and ease of use. This does not imply that there will be no need for training and routine maintenance. Departments will need to continue to train personnel on proper apparatus procedures. In some cases, departments will look to specialized vehicles in an effort to meet the needs of the community and various requests for service. Some organizations will look to alternatives to sending engine companies to medical emergencies with less expensive apparatus. This will still be a challenge that depends on the staffing model of the department.
Regarding equipment, expect continued improvements in technology and additional tools that take advantage of these advancements. Some of these will be used to improve performance and simplification. Some tools will become lighter and stronger. Those using technology will have more capabilities. One area that should be better is gas monitors. As more information becomes available regarding the dangers of the products of combustion and their effects on firefighter health and wellness-especially related to cancer-there will be more monitoring equipment to help identify hazardous environments and provide information to let firefighters know when air quality is within safe working limits that don’t require special protective measures.
Technology will continue to provide more and more information to and about fire departments. There is almost an overload now, and there is no indication that there will ever be a push to limit what is made available. This information will continue to spread even outside the fire service, and the public will have more access. The bad news is that they will not likely access the information unless there is a negative event. People will remain too busy to care about their emergency services unless something goes wrong. Then they will investigate, looking for someone to blame. As such, fire departments will need to continue to improve their operations and keep good records.
Training and Education
Training and education will continue to grow in importance to organizations that seek continual improvement and a desire to provide outstanding service. Expectations for performance will increase, and departments that embrace this challenge will begin to distinguish themselves both inside and outside the profession. There will be increased scrutiny as some of the above mentioned technology allows for spreading information. Unfortunately, most of what gets distributed is negative because that seems to be how the media and social media work. When something inappropriate is captured, it will get played and shared. Departments will need to continue to look for ways to manage their images and reputations.
The increase in research will mandate more training so that firefighters have access to information and operations can be adjusted to account for the new information. The fire service must accept science that explains operational and human behavioral issues as part of the new normal. There are more institutions committed to research thanks to various grant programs. Most of these are addressing health and wellness issues related to this occupation. The studies will ultimately affect cultural issues as well as day-to-day operations. There is no doubt that the National Institute of Standards and Technology and Underwriters Laboratories will continue their fine work. As researchers release more results, there is more for firefighters to learn. Leaders in the service must constantly monitor these developments and do whatever they can to get the information to everyone in their departments.
Another area of training and education that will continue to evolve will be training delivery. Departments continue to look to be more efficient by using technology. Look for more offerings online and through other means so that firefighter convenience improves. This will come at some expense because training in a traditional classroom setting will decline, taking its advantages and benefits. The pursuit of cost-effective training may come at the expense of quality and effectiveness. Departments and fire officers must know the advantages and disadvantages of various delivery methods and use those that will improve performance and safety. Ultimately, it is about providing the best possible service to the community on every call.
Last but certainly not least, firefighter safety will continue to be on the front burner as an important topic. More information will emerge regarding the dangers presented at hostile fire events-both immediate and long-term. Studies will continue to show the relationship between exposure to products of combustion and firefighter cancer. Organizations will continue to seek ways to better protect firefighters from unnecessary risks. Organizations will pursue more training for incident safety officers and health and safety officers. There will be more realization that while firefighting will remain a dangerous occupation, there are many things that can be done to reduce the risks without affecting the ability to perform the necessary functions to save lives and extinguish fires.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to accurately predict the future? If you knew when a fire would occur, you could be there in the early stages to extinguish it. If you could predict a catastrophic fire event, you would get firefighters out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, we can’t always do that. But by looking to the future, you can make good guesses as to the coming trends. If you can do that, you can then work toward preparation and contribute to making your future.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA). He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment and Fire Engineering editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.