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Welcome to my site and thank you for reading. After many times thinking, if only I had a blog, well-- here we are. This blog will feature writings on a variety of topics from roadside food, to leadership in the fire service; politics; culture- gay, straight, and indifferent, my experiences in Ohio, New York and beyond; and much much more. It's my hope that you will find it interesting and that it stirs at least some thought and discussion. I am certain you wont always agree, but that is what its all about right? Oh and one more thing:

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Opportunities from Challenge-- Lessons for the Fire Service

As I read yet again of Fire Departments in my home state of Ohio facing extreme financial pressures, I can not help but wonder if those departments are missing out on an opportunity to use the current and ongoing financial crisis as a tool to actually accomplish critical public safety goals; increase labor involvement; and develop essential partnerships between the community, the fire service, fire service unions, and local elected leaders.  These partnerships could transcend the political environment and sew seeds of future progress regarding several key areas.

I realize that given the current state of politics, especially in the Midwest, this would seem to be counterintuitive—but it is my strong belief that the greatest opportunities for growth can and do come from the most challenging times—and now is no exception.  The key is for leaders to see those opportunities and leverage the desire on the part of all stakeholders for both successful outcomes and political victories in order to make substantial forward progress.  Several of those key areas include:

Element One:

A Statewide or Nationwide standard for fire protection services that is based on NFPA principles, but is codified into law.  Much like the standards used to evaluate fire protection in the UK, these standards could be based on three principle types of service areas:  Urban; Suburban; and Rural.  They could be designed in a very flexible manner, describing how many fire personnel should be able to arrive at a given location in a given amount of time.  For example; in an Urban area; a minimum of nineteen firefighters should arrive for a working residential fire in ten minutes or less; twenty-four for a commercial fire—including a minimum of three personnel dedicated to Rapid Intervention.  The standard would not dictate the type of apparatus or number of apparatus—this would permit local flexibility. 

Element Two:

In return for supporting a national standard on personnel (something that city managers may not embrace) Unions could become more supportive of consolidation efforts—especially in urban areas where smaller departments could be absorbed into larger municipal departments.  This would be especially advantageous in Midwestern areas such as Columbus and Cincinnati where many smaller township departments exist in areas surrounded by larger municipal departments.  The IAFF could work with the IAFC; the ICMA; and other municipal/government groups to develop a standard on how these mergers could be worked.  Given that the standard would exist regarding fire protection coverage; and rules could be included about jobs being maintained—the overall impact on firefighters would be minimized, with cost savings for local governments maximized.  In many Midwestern states, where townships exist often only to support fire departments—townships themselves could potentially be eliminated.  Saving millions and eliminating a form a government that is often redundant—especially in urban areas. 

At a minimum—even without consolidations of departments—the opportunities for cost savings in shared support functions—such as fleet maintenance; administrative support services; apparatus procurement; and dispatching are more than significant.  The creation of fire authorities or Councils of Government should be explored in many areas—especially those with smaller departments that operate cooperatively; but for whatever reason cannot merge with each other or a larger neighboring department. 

Element Three:

Best Practices regarding EMS.  One of the contributing factors behind the financial challenges of  many fire departments- have been the need to provide EMS services.  In the 1990s, many departments approached EMS with a one-size-fits-all ALS approach, and now find themselves with far more paramedics that are reasonable required.  Often, these paramedics are paid more; the trucks they operate cost more for equipment; supplies; and drugs; and the medic skills that they are trained are rarely used.  The use of all ALS systems to respond to mostly BLS emergencies is a costly waste of resources and is a potentially dramatic source of not only cost savings—but service improvement!  According to a watershed 2005 USA today study—the presence of more paramedics does not automatically lead to better outcomes—a fact that remains unheeded by many large fire departments who are in the EMS business. 
The potential solutions vary based on local operational conditions—but having ALS providers only on Fire Engines; with BLS transport ambulances is one potential solution.  Another is to utilize new Computer Aided Dispatch Programs that are better able to distribute calls effectively to a more limited number of ALS ambulances utilizing triage questions; AVL dispatching; and dynamic response adjustments. 

Element Four:

Whether Move up modules; new Dispatch Programs that allow sharing of resources; consolidated dispatch facilities that can manage all units in a region without regard to ownership (jurisdiction); fire station deployment software or simple techniques such as having all Ambulances “on-the-air” during peak periods to save on turn-out times, the number of solutions for current challenges is likely beyond quantitative measure.  Any of these solutions, however, must be outcome driven- and work for the local agency—not require the agency to work around the technology. 

In conclusion—although these days have been very dark for many public safety agencies across the United States—the outcomes do not have to be all bad.  By taking creative approaches, by working with stakeholders even when it may be difficult to do; and by employing technology and new approaches, the fire service doesn’t have to come out of this period weakened and less effective than it was before.  In fact, as with most times of hardship faced by individuals—it can sometimes be adversity that leads to greatest success.

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