The tones drop and the pagers activate, firefighters drop what they were doing and rush to get the trucks out. Unfortunately, that changes a little more year by year, fire departments across the US face multiple challenges, some are from within the structure of the fire department to include its municipal leaders or board of directors.
One of the most significant challenges faced in the fire service is recruitment and retention, it is a proven fact that the interest in emergency services in today’s world is shrinking year by year, especially in the volunteer setting. A scary statistic facing the country is per the National Fire Protection Association 69% of the fire departments across the United States are volunteer, the growing lack of interest to volunteer leaves the questions to many people of “what are we going to do and who is going to respond”?
Today there are more and more personal agendas or even personal attacks between departments and even within a department. One person will get promoted and others will be upset and hold grudges, one will get demoted or disciplined and will blame everyone else, there is a huge lack of personal responsibility. One will quit or get removed from a department and start vicious rumors about that department. No matter what the circumstance we all know that bad news travels faster than good news and once the bad news gets out, regardless of if it is true or not, that plays a part in making people not want to volunteer for that department or members not want to show up as much.
The fire service is seeing a culture change, which means the citizens need to be informed and involved, leaders must be honest with the citizens about the department needs and capabilities or the lack of. There needs to be more emphasis on prevention and public education to reduce the number and severity of fires. There needs to be more open minds and equality to women and minorities as they are also interested and capable of doing the job just as good as anyone else. Today, women have not only proven to be strong, dedicated, and hardworking, and in some cases, women are smaller than men making them useful in the fire service as they can fit in places that men cannot.
There are many challenges in the fire service, that is not a secret. Do not let the citizens go uninformed of what is going on or not going on. If the fire department is lacking in areas, then that needs to be known and the improvements need to be shown when they are corrected. If the city leaders or Board of Directors are lacking then the citizens need to know that as well, not to stir controversy but to get the problems recognized and corrected.
From the top to the bottom the firefighters Health and Safety is more of a concern today than ever. Can you predict the next call you are going to go on or the impact it may have in your life? No! Nobody can, but every call makes an impact in your life, big or small there is an impact. It feels good to make a difference in a tragic event, to save a life, to comfort someone and make them feel at ease. But it hurts when we are not able to be there in time, when someone loses their life right from under us. We may seem as if we are not bothered, “the tough firemen”, but we are and after years of putting them calls behind us and bottling up our emotions we face an assortment of behavioral issues. Behavioral health has become a hidden concern that is often overlooked. Firefighters, regardless volunteer or career deal with intense trauma and other incredibly stressful situations such as problems in their personal life that can have a huge impact on their mental wellbeing. Depression, PTSD, Anxiety, Sleep Disorders all have a major impact on mental illness and on not only the firefighter but firefighter’s family and the rest of the department. These cases can unfortunately lead to suicide. It is important for emergency service personnel to get trained and have resources readily available to help them through any issues they may be dealing with. Firefighters must learn to be there for each other and know the signs to look for. A good start to learn recognition and how to handle it is to go to www.fireherolearningnetwork.com Remember, “We can save more when we learn to save ourselves”!
Fire Service leaders across the country are working hard to make things work, to lower their ISO, to be NFPA compliant, to get the best equipment and training. Board of directors and municipal leaders can be to blame for a lot of the problem. In most cases those who sit on a city council or board of director committee have never served as a firefighter or in any emergency service. That poses lots of problems especially when allocating monies to different divisions or departments within a municipal government.
There are many options to assist funding such as grants, tax increases, bond issues etc. however the goal is to try not to spend money that is not there. This is where getting the citizens involved and being truthful with them, show them the problems and explain the solutions will help. Most people would not want to risk their lives with equipment and apparatus being covered with band aids and duct tape. Outdated equipment or lack of proper working equipment is a progressing problem across the US. Many leaders do not want to finance apparatus or equipment and have the mentality of “if we cannot afford it then we do not need it, however the bigger problem with their lack of training, knowledge and involvement is the fact that they do not understand how much equipment cost or the general operations of emergency services actually cost and they believe that most fire equipment is just overpriced, which that may be true, but the fact remains that it is all still needed. Leaders must be hit with reality, ask them to imagine the worst day of their life with their own family or house and the equipment doesn’t work or firefighters don’t show up.
Don’t hesitate to give the citizens references for the facts, such as other Fire Chiefs, NFPA, ISO, Insurance Agents, etc. Make sure the truth is out and not just the opinion of a past or disgruntled employee or a citizen that has never been in emergency service. Get folks informed. Some have no interest in truly learning the fire service. Even then you must be careful, some folks will be biased to their own opinion because of that deadly phrase of “that’s the way it’s always been done”. That may cost the community in many different aspects, safety, moral, equipment and training. Be a voice!
In closing, these challenges are faced across the country and on different scales. Firefighters need to come together. All emergency service personnel have jobs to do but the number one job is to provide the best “customer service” and to come home safe. Keep moving forward, no matter how many times your pushed back you must remember, the citizens need you. Don’t give up.
Fire Chief – Scott County Rural, Mo