Wingspread VI

By Robert Tutterow

By now most of you have heard, and hopefully read, the recently released Wingspread VI report.

The report contains 14 “Statements of National Significance to the United States Fire and Emergency Services.” If you have not read it, please do. It is the output of a diverse group of approximately 40 people from the American fire service who looked at the industry’s challenges and opportunities. I was fortunate enough to be a recorder for this event and hope to provide some perspective beyond the report.

About the Report

The Wingspread report gets its name from the Wingspread Conference Center located in Racine, Wisconsin. The center was developed around the former home of the Johnson Wax family designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The self-contained campus includes a small hotel-type facility to house participants. This report marked the 50-year anniversary of the first report. It has been published once every 10 years since it started in 1966. The conference started at the same conference center, hence its name, and was held there in 1966, 1976, and 1986. In 1996, the conference was in Dothan, Alabama, and in 2006, it was in Atlanta, Georgia.

The previous five conferences received very little publicity except for a short time after each report was released. For the most part, they were very general in nature and without any controversy. However, the 2016 report is a radical departure from the previous reports. It was put together by a larger group. It has the capacity to be distributed through multiple outlets, thanks to electronic and social media. But more importantly, it was decided that if the report was to have any impact, it must address key issues that are potentially controversial.

Another major departure of this report from previous reports is that it contains an action plan for each statement. Each plan identifies who is responsible for taking the action steps to address the challenges and opportunities. This could be a national group or several national groups. It could be a state or regional group. It could be each local fire and emergency service. Or, it could be each member of a fire and emergency service organization.

Tough Topics

Most of us are familiar with how difficult it is to reach consensus about “thorny” issues we face in this business. The U.S. fire and emergency services have always been very fragmented. There is no single governing or leading organization. They are services that rely on volunteers as well as people who choose the profession as a career. You can imagine the angst that ensued from some of the participants as the report was developed. For example, in this column I am using the term “fire and emergency services.” There was general, if not unanimous, consensus that the term “fire service” was no longer adequate to address the service level provided in most jurisdictions, nor was it a term that will adequately address the service into the future. After several possible terms and votes through a process of elimination, the group decided that “fire and emergency services” was the most appropriate term to use.

Another issue that remained contentious until the final draft of the document was whether to use the word “should” or “must” in the action plan. In the end, mainly because there is no enforcement authority, the group decided that “should” was the better word to use. But this was not a unanimous decision.

1 Wingspread participants. [Photo by Chief Steve Hansen, Racine (WI) Fire Department.]
1 Wingspread participants. [Photo by Chief Steve Hansen, Racine (WI) Fire Department.]

If you are a volunteer firefighter or member of a combination department, you might think some of the statements are not applicable. However, please be sure to read the appendix in the back of the report titled, “Crisis in the Volunteer/Combination Fire, Rescue, EMS System.”

As you read the report, you will likely feel various degrees of discomfort. The statements of significance are not reflective of your grandfather’s fire service, your parent’s fire service, or the fire service you entered and continue to serve. They show an emergency service that is far different than what most of us experience and probably not one that most of us would wish for. However, the statements are reflective of what must be done for fire and emergency services to thrive – not survive, but thrive!

Thriving

The last word in the above paragraph is one I use to make a point. Is the traditional fire service going away soon? Of course not. But, will it thrive? Has it been thriving? It depends on the jurisdictions. No one can deny that the fire service has struggled during the past couple of generations. It is not valued as it used to be, as evidenced by what occurred with the Providence (RI) Fire Department earlier this year with the closing of two fire stations. Staffing levels are down in both career and volunteer fire departments. In addition to station closings, brownouts have occurred. The competition for funding has increased. The latest data from the National Fire Protection Association show that only four percent of all calls are actual fire calls. When the body politic looks at that reality, it questions a lot of the funding we receive.

Key point: When discussion topics like this emerge, there is always the cry that we have lost our way and that we are not focusing on how to fight fires. Not true. Fire suppression and fire prevention will always be parts of the core mission, but we must address the need to adapt to the changing emergency needs of our citizens and address those needs.

Final thought: When you read the report, ask yourself what the future will hold if the action plans are ignored. Where you see the word should, think about the word must.

In future columns, I will address the issues from Wingspread VI that are most pertinent to health, safety, apparatus, and equipment. The report can be found on multiple Web sites by searching for “Wingspread VI.”

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.).

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