In the coming year, some recent trends will continue and others will fade away. Which ones will sustain?
It is not always easy to predict, but looking at recent history and developments in other industries can help the fire service prognosticate.
There are likely to be some “flashes in the pans”—items, topics, and issues that will last a short time and fade away. Others will continue developing and solidify their place in the service, while others will get an introduction and may or may not pass the test of time.
One of the issues that will continue to grow and further establish roots is firefighter health/wellness/safety. Much attention has been brought to the forefront and rightfully so. This has been the result of passionate individuals, good organizations, and research from reputable institutions. This combination will ensure that this is not just a passing trend but will continue to transform the fire service. The increase in awareness along with the scientific evidence make it much harder for previously regarded “truths” to continue. It also helps one retirement at a time! There will always be naysayers (remember those who didn’t accept the proof that the earth was not flat?) who will resist hard evidence, looking to maintain the status quo. But there is too much critical mass with this subject to derail it. We can expect to see more research that either refutes previously held axioms or confirms instinctive thoughts.
Those who provide the apparatus and equipment, along with the services, that allow the fire service to deliver have certainly taken notice of this trend. The long-time supporters of the fire service have always been considerate of firefighter issues. This will continue with the newer information, and they will adjust their products and services. The “friends” of the fire service will remain friends.
We can also expect to see other companies enter the market. This can be those that have been engaged in health and wellness issues in other occupations or new companies. Regardless, there will be more options, and with this comes the need for the fire service to do its research and due diligence when evaluating products and services.
One of the issues that arises with most changes is the influx of new ideas and products related to the new program. The question becomes one of whether there is benefit to the long-term development. As an example, I was reading recently about the many companies trying to provide products and services to address the tragic mass shootings of late, particularly those in schools. They all claim to have the “silver bullet” that will guarantee protection. Of course, many in law enforcement and the school systems are taking the time to evaluate each one to make sure they can deliver on their promises.
Within the fire service, we can expect to see similar introductions in our “hot topics.” Many will be in response to recent revelations about the inordinate impact the job has on cancer rates. It is safe to say that some will be beneficial while others will have no or limited impact. It will be up to those in the fire service to do the proper vetting so that they get what they were promised.
Along the same lines, we can expect continued research into firefighter health and wellness issues. This will include physical, emotional, and mental considerations. There has been more attention paid to the entire wellness perspective, and this leads to more research and information. Physically, the fire service has always known that the job has taken a toll on the body. We have known the effects on the heart and lungs. Studies are helping to understand that better and offer means to improve the outcomes. Obviously, there is tremendous interest in learning more about the threat of cancer and ways to reduce the risk to firefighters. We can expect more focus on the “clean cab concepts” being touted and look to better practices. This also applies to clean fire stations. There will continue to be developments that will assist existing stations and also new stations that are being built.
Other health issues will continue as we learn more about the toll the job takes on the mental well-being of firefighters. Unfortunately, there are more suicides and attempted suicides in the occupation and other issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. Research will continue, with more emphasis on looking for solutions and best practices.
Another area that may get more attention is sleep—the sleeping habits of firefighters and sleep deprivation. Everyone knows that firefighters don’t always get the number of hours that they need. The additional workload, mostly from increases in emergency medical services (EMS) calls, has greatly reduced the downtime of career and volunteer firefighters. We will learn more on how sleep adversely affects the long-term health of firefighters as well as decision making.
Recruitment and retention will also receive more attention, both in the career and volunteer services. Much has been written about the decline in volunteers in the American fire service. This has many causes, and individuals and organizations are working on possible solutions. The time commitment, additional requirements for training, additional calls from EMS, and a change in some cultural perspectives have all contributed. This is a complex issue and will require a great deal of work to address the concerns. While some departments are doing better than others, the trend continues and will for the foreseeable future.
Many career organizations are seeing a decline in applications and more willingness of employees to change jobs. The second issue is related in part to the viewpoints of millennials, Gen Y, and Gen Z, although this is not the entire story. There are other contributing factors. Departments providing EMS have a certain level of licensure. In the case of a paramedic, this is quite a commitment. It has taken over the bulk of training and licensure requirements in many departments as well as greatly increased emergency activity. If you couple this with the reduction of pay and benefits in some places, the job may not be as attractive today as it once was. Whatever the reasons, those in leadership will be asked to develop a strategy to ensure an adequate number of talented individuals remain interested in the fire service.
Prognosticating can be challenging. It can be fun. No one is every really expected to be correct all the time. But, in the end, we all should take a look at trends and recent history to help us better prepare for the job ahead. We also have a chance to better influence where the profession is headed. Sometimes, we get caught up in the day-to-day activities and do not pause to see where we might end up. Take the time to look at your own organization and the trends in the fire service, and make your best predictions so that you can be prepared. This article cannot touch all the possibilities. We discussed mostly health and safety issues, which everyone should consider the top priority. But look at other issues that have an impact on service delivery. Be as ready as you can for what lies ahead.
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 (IAFC), 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.