• CPS - Rob Watkins

    The Transformation of the Fire Service

    By Robb Watkins, School of Public Safety Adjunct Faculty 

    I have been in the fire and emergency medical services (EMS) for over 20 years. In that time, I have seen an amazing amount of change in both the industry and in the nation. The fire service has been pushing for changes in building codes and educating the public on the benefits of sprinklers, smoke detectors, and alarm systems for many years. Data now shows that these efforts are paying off and have led to a reduction in the number of fires, civilian fire-related injuries, and civilian fire deaths. The reduction in injuries and deaths from fire is, of course, a wonderful trend for the United States. But this trend leaves the fire service with a void to fill when justifying its existence. And yes, the fire service spends a lot of time justifying its existence especially in tough economic times when its parent governmental organization is in a budget crisis. At the same time, calls for service continue and the public still expects appropriate service levels, which also drives new fire service initiatives.

    As with any business that is looking to survive and maintain viability, the fire service has looked to other service areas in order to stay competitive and valued by its customers. The first market that the fire service embraced was emergency medical services (EMS) in the 1970s.  Most paid fire departments now require their members to have a minimum of EMT certification and many require EMT-P (paramedic) certification. As an example, in my fire protection district 80 percent of our calls are EMS-related. We require a minimum of EMT certification and will soon have an advanced life support (ALS) paramedic on every engine company.

    Hazardous materials (Haz-Mat) response has been around for several decades and since 9/11 the teams have new missions and updated names, such as the Specialized Chemical, Ordnance, Biological, Radiological (COBRA), or WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) response teams. The post 9/11 terrorism funding from the federal government has provided the equipment for these new teams. Even departments that are too small or do not have the sufficient resources to have their own Haz-Mat teams can now allow their personnel to participate in a regional team and loan their people to the team when needed. In return they can call upon the team when they need assistance.

    Many fire departments are also embracing technical rescue, Heavy Rescue, or Urban Search and Rescue (USAR). USAR has been around since the early 1980s and the term technical rescue has been around since the 1960s. Like Haz-Mat, USAR is very expensive and the training requirements are intensive, which requires a significant investment of personnel training time and money. Large metro departments may have the financial and administrative resources necessary to fund their own individual teams as a sponsoring agency. However, the national trend toward non-federal USAR teams reflects a scalable model in which several different organizations come together to form a county, regional, or state team.

    Emergency Management (EM) is also a rapidly expanding field that the fire service has embraced. Many governmental organizations are turning to fire department leadership to run organizational EM divisions. EM program administration is much larger than just incident management and response. Federal training funds are also available through homeland security grants that enable fire service personnel to increase their knowledge base and certification levels. The EM training is outside of normal suppression training requirements.

    The fire service has used the Incident Command System (ICS) for years and at its very core are the principles of unity of command and span of control. Those themes are central to the National Incident Management System (NIMS). An additional aspect of emergency management is the formation of incident support teams (ISTs) to assist in managing major incidents and disasters. ISTs are becoming an indispensable part of large-scale disaster response.

    A more recent service area adopted by the fire service is that of law enforcement support. EMT and paramedics from the fire service are now supporting Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams as fully functional team members. Recent high-profile incidents in the United States continue to prove the need for rapid fire and EMS support during terrorism attacks, school shootings, and civil unrest incidents. Such events suggest that this need may increase and that further expansion will be necessary to protect the public and emergency responders.

    New firefighting recruits are less likely than their predecessors to pick a career path of “suppression only.” We are experiencing an unprecedented combination of economic pressures that require the fire service to maximize its operational efficiencies, increase its organizational transparency, and train its personnel for an all-hazards response. The rate of change in the industry is increasing exponentially and is not likely to slow down. We must embrace change and accept the fact that our world is changing rapidly and we, the fire service, need to change with our environment if we are going to survive and stay relevant.

    We must never stop.


    Robb Watkins is an adjunct faculty member at Kaplan University. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Kaplan University. 

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