Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last Thoughts from 2009 and Hopes for 2010

It is traditional to spend the last week of the year reflecting upon the past year's events and in anticipating the new year. It has indeed been an eventful year. Major fires, mass casualty incidents, new EMS standards, and political changes that affect Fire-Rescue and EMS services have all been in the news. The tragic loss of fellow firefighters and medics has once again been in the headlines. The 800-pound gorilla in the news has been the continuing problems with the national economy, diminished local tax revenues, and the reduction in services that have been forced upon many cities, towns, and counties.

No fire chief or EMS director wants to close stations, disband companies, furlough firefighters or medics, cut staff and/or benefits, or conduct unit brownouts. All of these have been forced on unwilling leaders, generally under protest. In some cases, companies with over a century of tradition have been disbanded.

Cutbacks of this magnitude have only occurred two other times in the past century. The event that caused the first set of cutbacks was the transition from horsedrawn apparatus to motorized apparatus in the early 1900s. Prior to that time, the edges of a company's first-due area was set by the stamina of the horses that pulled the appratus. With equine stamina no longer being a factor, firehouses could be located farther apart, so many companies were disbanded.

The second time this occurred was in the "War Years" that coincided with economic downturn from the late 1960's through the 1970's. Despite urban fire companies running calls in record numbers, fire companies were disbanded, stations closed, and firefighters were laid off. This was the first time that many fire departments realized that they had to position themselves to withstand downturns in the economy. Some responded with innovation, master planning, and other proactive solutions, but many departments remained reactive.

Beginning in the 1970's, the fire service began going through paradigm changes with each paradigm change taking roughly a decade to become widely accepted. The 1970's were the decade of EMS. EMS was a new concept back then, but many fire departments welcomed and embraced it. The Los Angeles area was notable in this respect, as anyone who ever watched an episode of Emergency! will remember. A new job description - that of Paramedic - became part of our vocabulary.


The 1980's were the decade of Hazardous Materials response. Based on several high-profile hazmat incidents in the late 1970's, Hazmat became a key issue for both fire departments and the communities they served. Another new job description - that of Hazardous Materials Technician entered our vocabulary.

The 1990's were the decade of Technical Rescue. Standardized, innovative extrication practices were invented by firefighters who became famous by the way they taught others how to rapidly and safely cut patients free from the wreckage of their vehicles. The Urban Search and Rescue system was expanded and received its first major domestic test at the Oklahoma City bombing incident. Rescue training became a major focus. Other new job descriptions, those of Extrication Technican and Technical Rescue Technician became common.

The first decade of the new century, unfortunately, became the decade of Terrorism. Although the U.S was hit with several terrorist attacks in the 1990s, and foreign terrorism had been common for many years, the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks were a watershed event in our lives, much as the Pearl Harbor attack on 12/07/41 was the watershed event in our parents' lives. Other than the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the other terrorist incidents were conducted by only four domestic terrorists - the Unabomber, the Murrah Building bomber and one accomplice, and the mislabeled Army of God bomber. The 9/11 attacks led to widespread training for response to terrorist events. Firefighters and medics had to start considering terrorism as a potential cause for otherwise innocuous incidents, and learned terms like "nerve agent", "WMD", "WMD Technician", and "USAR Rescue Specialist" entered our vocabulary.


2009 was a momentous year for my department. After over a decade of planning, budgeting, and lobbying, we were able to build a training center. That may not sound like a big deal to some of you, but when your department covers a barrier island surrounded by water, having a place to train is indeed big news. The training center allows us to conduct training in ways that are impossible to replicate in a parking lot or at a fire station. I lived the dual blessing and curse of being the project manager for the training center construction while simultaneously maintaining all of the other Chief of Training responsibilities. That was stressful and challenging, but it also allowed me to add features that might not have otherwise made it into the design. It also allowed me to work closely with other division heads and to strenghten working relationships with my colleagues.

Local revenue downturns led to a year with no pay raises for any of our municipal employees. My department was regretfully and regretably forced to return a SAFER grant award of almost a million dollars to FEMA and to forgo the truck company start-up for which the grant was awarded. Our municipality simply could not raise the required matching funds without cutting other essential services, so we chose to maintain what we had as the least of a range of bad choices.

There was more good news, for us, though. We were able to purchase a standardized pumper fleet for the first time in department history. We also standardized hose loads, nozzles, and initial company operations for all of our engine companies for the first time in our history. We were also able to standardize our nozzle complements and pump operations, also for the first time. Our capital improvements budget was scheduled for two fire station replacements. One of these was delayed, but we have a badly-needed station replacement under construction. Our department became the first in our state to join the CARES registry that tracks cardiac arrest survival to hospital discharge. We also began a STEMI program with local hospitals and two neighboring EMS systems, with two of our officers coordinating these programs and implemented a department-wide electronic patient care reporting system. We also implemented an new SOG and policy system, obtained new turnout gear, and implemented new extrication tools.

2009 was a year of milestones for several of our members. Five of our officers serve on state and national fire service committees. Battalion Chief Mick Mayers became the latest of several of our past and current chief officers to complete the prestigious Executive Fire Officer program at the National fire academy. Four of our officers authored or co-authored fire service training books, field guides, and blogs. Despite some setbacks, 2009 was a successful year for us by any standard.

What will 2010 hold? For my department, we now have to operate the new training center, complete the new fire station project, and hopefully manage the construction of the station that was delayed from 2009. We will be receiving two new quints and training all of our personnel to operate them. The training center will be a busy place.

Nationally, the next decade will be the decade of Interoperability. We are used to "doing our own thing", but with the increasing needs for EMS involvement in fireground and hazmat rehab, the increasing involvement of police departments in force protection and Unified Command, and the continuing ways in which MCI and disaster management continue to involve, interoperability will become increasingly important. This involves the planning and technology necessary to complete the nationwide radio rebanding project, the ability to involve fire, EMS, and law enforcement in joint operations and training, and losing the attitude that we operate in a vacuum, because we don't.

We need to continue to preach - and practice the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

We need to continue to make training and operations safer.

We need to focus on getting safely to the scene - every time.

We need to focus on being healthy and fit to do the job.

We need to focus on planning and innovation to survive a continued sluggish economy.

We need to take care of our own and work to maintain what we have.

We need to be honest with our elected officials and citizens - cutbacks can and do hurt our ability to provide services.

We need to realize that operating "the way we've always done it" will result in Russian Roulette at best, and suicide at worst.

We need to be smart enough to stay out of Born Losers.

We need to conduct realistic Master Planning.

We need to educate the public - CPR classes, First Aid classes, car seat installations, Risk Watch programs, and Fire Prevention classes can and do save lives.

Last, but not least, we need to get make our departments missionaries for residential sprinkler programs and the new building code that requires their installation on new construction. It's past time that we use our influence at the state and national level to overcome the contruction industry's misperception that saving a few cents per square foot on new home construction is worth someone's life.

The departments that plan, adapt, innovate, and market themselves will flourish. The ones that do not will become anachronisms, consigned to a never-ending vicious cycle of manpower cuts, station closures, brownouts, and budget cuts.

After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Have a Happy and Safe 2010, everyone.

From All Hazards Contemplations, Ben Waller, 2009

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