Earlier this year, I had the honor and privilege to be a review panelist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency Fire Prevention & Safety Research and Development grant applications at the National Emergency Training Center.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a long-time advocate for fire-service-related research and development (R&D). It has historically been a field where very little research has occurred. We go about our job of firefighting doing what we know from our experience and what has been passed along to us. But, we don’t know what we don’t know. The grant review experience was exciting, as I saw so many outstanding applications and opportunities to perform needed R&D in many areas of the fire service. Unfortunately, it was also disappointing because I knew there was not nearly enough funding for most of the proposed projects.
Readers will have differing opinions about the role of government. However, in the case of research for the fire service, it seems that government must play a role. And, it should play a much larger role—i.e., significantly more funding. The fire service does not have a profit motive or margin to fund research as might be found in the private sector.
The fire service should be proud that its grant funding, though limited, is administered in a very fair and equitable way. It has been said that “our” grant program should be a model for every grant program. The review process involves end users from various fire service regions of the country and diverse areas of fire expertise. The reviewers volunteer their time. Of course, if your department has submitted a grant request, probably not an R&D request, and was not awarded the grant, then you may think it is politically motivated. Having been a past reviewer for non-R&D grants, I do not think political interference is a need for concern.
Naturally, there is lot of so-called research being touted by manufacturers. This is not necessarily bad because it shows manufacturers have invested time and money into their products. We are all familiar with the phrase “studies show” and “clinically proven.” We, as the fire service, must dig a little deeper and find out about those studies. Who conducted them? Who funded them? A manufacturer-funded study will probably tell you the truth but not necessarily the whole truth—sort of like politicians. On occasion, a manufacturer may contract with a university for research on its product. This will add validity but probably not total validity. Key questions to ask are: Did the research outcome have peer review? Was there a fire service advisory panel involved in the research? Did the manufacturer have the right to filter any of the outcomes?
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Fire Protection Research Foundation has an excellent model for the research it oversees. Often a research university will partner with the Foundation for its fire service research. With the Foundation, there will always be a fire service advisory panel to help guide the research and disseminate the information. I also think the fire service should know that Casey Grant and his team at the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation work tirelessly to help the fire service. It is a passion with them as firefighting is a passion for most firefighters.
Look at all the research about fire behavior conducted by Underwriters Laboratories and others that clearly shows that we have been attacking fire incorrectly in most cases. Fire attack is the basis of the firefighting profession and we were not doing it the most effective way. Maybe we learned something we didn’t really want to know, though we needed to know it. To this day, many firefighters and fire departments will not acknowledge and use this research.
Also, consider all the ongoing research about cancer prevention among firefighters. How clean is clean? There are many years of research ahead in this area alone.
Speaking of years to come, good science-based research is a very, very slow process. The scope of a project often must be limited because of resources. In many cases, there is a step-by-step process that must be followed. You can’t build a building from the top down. In almost all cases, good research will lead to more research. It is common language in all projects to see language about the limitations of the research and the need for more research.
What can be done go help fund additional fire service research? Let Congress know. Another approach might be to encourage competing manufacturers to pool their resources to help fund nongovernment research. Such projects can be administered by independent agencies such as the NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation, the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization, and others. If handled correctly, the result will be an unbiased report.
The bottom line: Embrace and encourage R&D. Science-based research reports can often be strong tools in justifying budget development.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).