USA – The evolution of the fire service in the 40-plus years since the formation of the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) has been remarkable, and the new leadership at the organization and at the top of its National Fire Academy recognizes how much change has occurred and how much is yet to come for our nation’s emergency responders.
In a recent interview with Firehouse.com, U.S. Fire Administrator G. Keith Bryant and National Fire Academy Superintendent Tonya Hoover opened up about some of the trends they’ve seen since being appointed last May and what their primary goals are in two of the most critical leadership positions in today’s fire service.
“I’ll use an analogy from my past life with a local fire department,” Hoover said. “One of our captains used to say, ‘You call, we haul, that’s all.’ Our community expected us to be there for them and their world was constantly changing so ours was constantly changing as well. We have evolved in 40 years and we need to continue evolving.”
During that constant and ongoing evolution, however, Bryant sees one thing that never changes.
“The good news is that I believe the people who make up the nation’s fire and emergency services still have a desire and willingness to serve and put themselves in hazardous situations,” Bryant said. “That’s the constant, but what’s changed is the nature, the complexity and the severity of those hazards they face.”
Bryant’s roots in fire service began in the military as a U.S. Army firefighter and crash rescue specialist before he joined the fire department in Oklahoma City, in 1982, where he rose in rank over the course of 23 years until being appointed chief in 2005.
Large-scale and violent events
A former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, Bryant was one of the firefighters who responded to the bombing of the Alfred R. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, giving him a powerful perspective on how responding to violent events is now a significant part of firefighter training.
“I would say to departments nationwide that they need to be prepared for and thinking about their response to large-scale events and violent events,” Bryant said just one day before 17 people were killed in a shooting at a Parkland, FL high school on Wednesday. “We need to continue to prioritize that because we’re seeing a steady stream of those and almost seeing an increase in the severity or the escalation of those events.”
Preparation for such large-scale events is something Hoover will focus on during her tenure at the NFA as she and her team examine and refine the current course curriculum to help better prepare the next generation of leaders.
“We’re doing things as emergency responders that we never thought we would be doing 40 years ago,” Hoover said. “We weren’t talking about hostile environments, we weren’t talking about putting medics in hot zones or having medics with police officers. We weren’t talking about fire behavior in the wildland like we are now. We weren’t talking about EMS, if you think about it.”
Hoover, who rose to the rank of battalion chief in the early portion of her firefighting career, most recently served as California State Fire Marshal from 2009-2016, a position which provided an up-close look at how urgent the need is to better prepare for major wildland incidents like those that ravaged the Golden State in October.
“We see fire behavior in ways that we’ve never seen in decades, and the opportunity is there to reevaluate some of those modeling issues surrounding wildland fire. We need to step up our wildland involvement and also step it up in our delivery, which is part of the undertaking right now in our Command & Control program.”
“We’re in the community before the incident occurs, during and after,” Hoover said. “It’s very important that our courses reflect that. So the recent events that happened like the hurricanes in Houston and Florida, they get used in our Command & Control classes as examples for future and current leaders so they know how to evaluate performance and they know how to be prepared both ahead of an incident and then what it would take through the recovery process. It also gives them an opportunity to work with and see the federal system and understand how the supply chain operates and how best to operate within it.”
A key point for Bryant concerning wildland incidents is that they can no longer be viewed, as they have for many years, as primarily an issue facing Western states.
“I think not too long ago it was looked at as more of a Western U.S. issue and not so much in the Central or Eastern parts of the country,” Bryant said. “But I think just in terms of property loss and lives lost this past year, you really could make the argument that the wildland issue is the nation’s fire problem. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to continue looking at other things, and that’s not necessarily our main priority, but I would say in terms of how we’re addressing it on a national level, we may be just a little bit behind the curve and we need to step up our efforts in that area.”
“We do offer some good courses that deal with wildland issues at the Academy, but again I think maybe it could be made a bit more current with what’s going on right now. I certainly see trends that it’s going to affect more and more of the population in the years to come, and we need to be a bit more focused on it in terms of the education and training we provide.”
Stepping up efforts in that area as well as in others, including the burgeoning topic of mental health and post-traumatic stress among first responders, will be crucial in the coming year given the USFA’s current five-year strategic plan runs through 2018.
“A lot of what we’ll be doing over the next year is looking at that strategic plan in terms of how we might want to revise it, update it and make sure that we’re future-oriented” Bryant said. “Obviously, being a part of FEMA, we’re going to have to look at the FEMA Administrator’s strategic direction. He’s got three overarching principles, and the first is to better prepare communities for disaster response.”
A huge part of that preparation for Hoover is community risk reduction (CRR), a topic she says is “near and dear to my heart” and one that speaks to all elements of the modern fire service, particularly when it comes to Emergency Medical Services and how it has come to make up such a large bulk of what firefighters are handling on their runs.
“EMS does account for a majority of the runs we see in the data being provided to our (National Fire Incident Reporting) System,” Hoover said. “EMS is 85 percent and sometimes 90 percent of the call volume, and we do have a pretty extensive EMS supervision and leadership program with a number of courses for folks who are focused on EMS.”
“EMS becomes part of community risk reduction as it gets identified as a priority. I don’t see the fire service changing in that regard. I think the fire service will always be involved with EMS and we have to be prepared for the changing environment in EMS. We change protocols based on what we’re seeing in the field,” Hoover said. “I’ll use the opioid epidemic as an example. That’s an EMS issue as well as a hazmat issue, so when I talk about CRR it’s all-inclusive. It’s not just fire, it’s EMS, it’s hazmat and other man-made and natural disasters.”
Bryant was quick to emphasize that the next generation of firefighters needs to understand that it’s not just about fire anymore.
“I believe that we provide very good programs in terms of EMS,” he said. “But I think there might not be as much interest with the people who apply for our courses as there is with the fire, leadership and executive development programs. And maybe that’s incumbent on us to emphasize our EMS delivery a little bit more. Obviously, the fire service is the largest provider of EMS services in the nation, and we’ve tried to make sure that we address those things and provide that education and training.”
“It’s not that we don’t deliver programs and courses and education in EMS, we do. But we just need to make sure that people are more aware of that because it’s such a large part of what the fire and emergency services provide in this day and age.”
Addressing mental health
The topic of PTSD is one the fire service is just starting to fully grasp, and the trends in mental health for first responders have not gone unnoticed by Hoover.
“Some of the areas we’ve placed a lot of focus on recently is our health and wellness with a new training specialist who’s focused on health and safety for the fire and emergency services, and how that crosses over into all our curriculum areas” Hoover said.
“We want to make sure that we are talking about the (warning) signs to insure that our folks are mentally healthy as well as physically healthy. There are a lot of really great groups and organizations and specialists that are working hard to help the fire service address mental health. We want to make sure that we’re a part of that team and we’re able to share information and point people in the right direction, and to bring it to the forefront in our curriculum.”
Another priority for Bryant during his tenure is to push data collection into its next phase on both an input and extraction level. Accurate and detailed data input from fire departments around the country is one of the best ways firefighters can help the USFA and NFA make the appropriate adjustments in course development and response preparation.
“I came from that user side of things not too long ago,” Bryant said of inputting data into NFIRS. “And we’d all like to say that it could be easier and quicker or more modern… but as we move along with the current budget we have, we’ll do our best to make whatever improvements we can.”
“The one thing we can’t emphasize enough is the need for better accuracy on the input side. We see issues with that. It’s something that’s a big priority for us, to make sure that we’re making departments aware that the information and the data are used to not only analyze the nation’s fire problems but also help us determine trends we need to stay on top of. We’ve got to have accurate data input.”
With recruitment efforts on a downward swing across the country, Bryant is also stressing the need for fire service leadership to understand the changing trends and approaches of the younger generation during efforts to bring them into the fold.
“First and foremost, when you’re talking about chief-level personnel you can talk about the generational issues that we all have faced throughout our careers and the unique things about each generation and how we reach out to them,” Bryant said. “The more I talk to other chief officers around the country and others who are in charge of recruiting, not only in the career ranks but also the volunteer ranks, I see an increasing challenge for departments in recruiting quality people.”
Looking to the future
Hoover believes those trends and fresh attitudes need to be embraced and harnessed, which brings us back to the idea of evolution in the fire service.
“We want to make sure that we’re staying focused on being ready for change,” Hoover said. “The world evolves and we need to evolve as well. We need to evolve in the profession, so when we talk about our leaders of the future, they’re coming in with different skill sets. We need both the hard skills and the soft skills, because when you make that jump into those mid-manager leadership roles, you’re probably going to use more of your soft skills than your hard skills. So we need to prepare people to use their soft skills.”
“The wonderful thing about working here is that everyone believes in the mission” she added. “We have to make sure that we’re not just looking at today but also looking to the future, and how do we get there?”