Rurally Speaking: Managing Risk within the Rural Fire Department/Emergency Services Culture

By Carl J. Haddon

There is a big difference between being and living “rural by choice” and having grown up and lived “rurally” your entire life. It took me many years, and tens of thousands of miles of travel to rural fire departments all over the world to figure this out. I must admit that I am one of those who considers himself fortunate enough to have chosen to live and serve in a rural setting.

Most of us in this firefighting business have read articles or been involved in conversations that involve the phrase “a culture of fire.” For those of us who have tenure in the fire service, we live that same culture of fire each and every day. But, have we ever considered being “rural” a culture in and of itself? More to the point have you ever thought about living in a “rural fire culture?” If so, what does that mean to you? Are you set in your ways? Are you open-minded regarding new methods, tactics, and technology advancements? Do you have prejudices toward certain types of vehicles or equipment that are different from what you’ve always done or what you’ve always used or purchased? How do you feel about outsiders, or perhaps those in the fire service who might do things differently? Do you allow manufacturers’ reps or dealers to broaden your perspective and overall knowledge about what is new to the industry? Finally, do you actively seek to find out what the rest of the rural fire community is doing or are you content with “doing it the way we’ve always done it?” Please don’t misunderstand what I’m trying to say here. I don’t ask in a judgmental way. But, I’m asking to inspire you to take a look at these things to see if maybe we simply don’t see the forest because of all the trees.

I write this article from a South Pacific island while on an international training assignment. I am surrounded by an island culture and its culture of fire, which should be very foreign to me. The truth is, in some ways, it is foreign and in other ways it is a VERY familiar rural culture here. I am a strange man in a strange land. The brothers and sisters here struggle with many of the same challenges we do in our rural departments at home—from budgets, to interest in training, to lack of available outside training opportunities. Did I mention that a full time career fire officer over here makes an annual salary of $18,000?

I asked my counterparts here on the island the same questions I posed above about rural fire culture. Their answers were very interesting and very similar to what I’ve heard from rural departments at home. The main difference is that they are on a tropical island where weather eats away at equipment and apparatus that often can’t be stored inside—because there is no inside in which to store it. They have very limited resources to replace equipment or apparatus, and “closest outside resources,” when available, come by way of plane or boat from another island, many miles away and which are wickedly expensive.

So, how do we—company officers/fire commissioners—manage or mitigate the risk associated with the answers to these questions? In many cases, just honestly answering the questions and acknowledging that there may be some room for change or improvement in thought processes is often all that is required. In other cases, having trusted members from a neighboring department giving an honest evaluation of your operations (and vice versa) can be invaluable—as long as you’re (collectively) ready to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly as they perceive it. Either way, the process has to start with taking a step back and evaluating or reevaluating things from a fresh perspective. What do we let slide that we shouldn’t? What should we let slide that we don’t. If our decisions are narrow-minded about certain goods, services, equipment, or apparatus, are we inadvertently spreading that narrow mindedness to others within the department—especially our younger members? Are our decisions made with the ultimate safety and well being of those we serve, and those we serve with, in mind? If so, life is good. In the end, whether we are a big city department, a small tropical island department, or a rural country department, we are all works in progress—or at least we certainly should be.

is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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