What Does a Fire Department Do?

By Richard Marinucci

If you asked the public to compile a list of the services provided by the fire service, it probably would not include all the things that those in the fire service think they do. There is a disconnect as many people get their information from various sources that may not know what they think they know. It should not be a surprise as this would probably be the case in most occupations and businesses. But, the difference between what the people who pay the freight, i.e. taxpayers, and what really is occurring should not be too great to realize proper support of the organization.

This discrepancy also exists between those in municipal government who are outside the fire department, i.e. city managers and the elected officials who set the policy. This is problematic as fire departments struggle to get the necessary resources to provide the expected service level. At some point when faced with financial challenges, those in ultimate control of the resources will default to their comfort zone and make decisions based on their limited knowledge. Fire departments, and the fire service overall, need to step up efforts to improve the understanding that those out of the service have.

This issue also affects apparatus and equipment acquisition and usage. Questions arise as to why there needs to be such large, expensive apparatus going to minor calls. Civilians don’t understand the need to be heavy with resources upfront and to respond based on the information received from 911 calls through dispatch. They don’t have any idea about National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards that not only regulate initial purchases but also ongoing maintenance. They don’t understand the need to “beef” up apparatus and equipment to minimize the risk of a malfunction when an emergency occurs. They look at the price tag and relate that to their own experiences. They often are totally aligned to “low bid” at the expense of reliability and durability. “Low bid” may not be low when you factor in the costs of repairs and usage over the life expectancy of the apparatus or equipment.

Not knowing what a fire department does is not confined to those outside the service. Many times, suppression personnel don’t know everything that goes into making a fire department. In these instances, they don’t always provide the best information to those outside the service when they are engaged in conversation. There can be a lack of information provided or simply misinformation. I once had an employee who often wondered why it seemingly took so long to get certain things done. After he was promoted to a position that assumed some of the responsibilities he often questioned, he no longer wondered. I would often chide him on certain things, asking why it was taking so long to accomplish his work. Until he walked in the shoes, he didn’t quite understand. I don’t think this is unusual in the service.

There are other examples of this. Many times when a promotion occurs, the new officer becomes overwhelmed. He never really realized what went into the specific job, especially if it was in an area where he had limited exposure such as administration and fire prevention. Prior to being promoted even someone in the business did not realize the complexity of some jobs. If an insider is somewhat clueless, how much do you think the public and policymakers really understand? Because of this, it is important for everyone in the fire service to truly learn their profession across all areas and be able to intelligently discuss this when presented with an opportunity.

There are people who think that anybody can do this job. If there is no consideration for doing it well, they may be right up to a point. But if the truth was known, when the job is to be done properly and with an eye on quality, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. Fire department personnel need to know as much about their profession as possible, including the responsibilities in areas outside of their current positions. Individuals who aspire to true professionalism must take the initiative to learn as much as they can so that they are knowledgeable enough to educate those that are not.

Departments should also increase their efforts to improve on this. It can be done through training, job shadowing, and the like. As a publicly funded function of government, fire departments must continually work toward educating others about the complexity of a modern fire department. Doing so will only help in gaining support for the department.

RICHARD MARINUCCI is 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 masters degree and three bachelors degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.

No posts to display