Fire Departments or EMS Departments?

Volusia County (FL) Fire Services has four pumper-
transport units built by Braun Industries that are advanced life 
support transport boxes with Waterous compressed air foam 
systems (CAFS), 300-gallon water tanks, and 30-gallon foam tanks. 

By Richard Marinucci

Every so often I come across an article or hear some comments opining that fire departments shouldn’t be called fire departments because the bulk of their work is in the area of emergency medical services (EMS), and the number of fires has been reduced. Generally I don’t mind this discussion when it is about the overall service delivery. But in many cases, there is an implication that there is something wrong with departments because so much of their run volumes are not fire-based. It is this implication that fire departments and firefighters are somewhat less valuable that starts to irk me.

First and foremost, departments should look at their statistics and analyze what the numbers are telling them. In my two departments there has not been a reduction in fire calls. There has been a much larger increase in EMS calls but no decrease in incidents revolving around the primary reason for the organization since its inception. Because of the increase in EMS responses, there can be a perception that there are fewer fire calls because the percentage based on the total response is lower. In many cases, the number of EMS incidents is increasing at a much faster pace than fire and service calls. This should not be used to detract from the importance of responses to fires and other emergencies.

Another observation is that fires seem less important because fire prevention activities have had a positive effect on the number and severity of fires. Smoke alarms, automatic alarms, and automatic sprinklers have worked. They lead to earlier notification and control of fires. This means that they are not as big when the fire department gets there so they go out more quickly and cause less damage. This should not be something we need to apologize for. It is part of the overall service and indicates that an organization is contributing to the overall good of the community and its livability. This is what departments are supposed to do and they should not be subject to these direct or subtle suggestions that they are not providing a valuable service because they don’t have the same fire threat they once did.

I am not sure what the intent is when someone writes or speaks about this, implying that fire departments should change their name or that they should somehow just refocus their efforts. From a fire protection perspective, regardless of the number of fires an organization responds to, it still needs to be prepared and staffed. Fire departments need to reach a fire in the moments that matter with the appropriate staffing and equipment. I don’t understand the correlation of run volume to effectiveness in staffing if you want to really make a difference in the outcome of an individual fire.

Those not in the fire service should be proud that the fire service has embraced expanding its role to include EMS and other services. Even if firefighters did not look at ways to enhance the fire service’s mission, municipalities would still need to have firefighters on duty in the event there was a need. The fire service is provided by government because it is in the best interest of the greater good of the community and never was intended as a profit center. While I certainly don’t support any form of waste in government, there are some services that are provided so the quality of life of the residents is improved. It is about community and looking for ways to make the overall community better. Now I know there are exceptions as there are in any industry. But that is no reason to try to impugn the reputation of an entire service industry because it dares to do better. There should be no apologies from fire departments that continue to look to ways to add value. I, like the overwhelming majority in this profession, am proud of the expansion of the service and willingness to seek constant improvement.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is the executive director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) and chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. 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 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.

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