People often speak of the organizational culture of the fire service but seldom with such clarity and conviction as my friend Laura Baker, an assistant chief for Tucson (AZ) Fire. Laura has been in the fire service for 22 years, beginning as a firefighter and rising through the ranks to her current position. She served time as the fire marshal and has a broad perspective on the topic of what the fire service should really be about.
Chief Baker has been promoting a concept called “Hero to Guardian.” In simple terms, it reflects the point of view that our values need to adapt to the realities we (the fire service) face. People often seek out the job of being a firefighter with a picture of someone rushing through flames to save the victims inside. And, as I pointed out in last month’s column, that seldom happens.
That is not a slam, because it does indeed happen in the real world. And people are alive today who would not be so without a quick and effective emergency response. But considering the odds, with 80 percent (91 percent in Tucson) of our calls being medical, it is more likely we’ll save someone with medical treatment than from a fire. And sometimes the “save” scenario doesn’t come to an individual emergency responder at all. But there is value in serving in this noble profession. And, Laura sees another path to self-validation and value for the fire service.
Her interest in the topic began when looking at community policing models. Law enforcement is facing renewed calls to “police” in a different fashion than many have in the past. A fairly recent policy document developed by the Obama Administration outlined several key points about improving police operations, encompassed in the concepts of community policing: building trust and legitimacy, improving relationships with the community, reducing risks in the community, training and education, and improving officer safety.
The police are not responding to these concepts and pushing them because they don’t have enough to do. They are looking at new ways of doing business because they need the community’s help in solving problems. The police grab most of the headlines-and very intense public scrutiny. They need the community’s support perhaps now more than ever. But aren’t we in the fire service facing the same issues in our own way? It is rare for someone to shoot at a firefighter, but very often the public is questioning the pay and benefits we receive and the way we do business.
How then do we translate those concepts into the fire service world? Laura and some of her peers are beginning to spread the word about collaborative community risk reduction (CRR) in their own area and throughout the nation. Chief Jim Critchley of Tucson believes in these concepts and supports their expansion there. Tucson is moving forward with plans to reduce frequent 911 callers, increase smoke alarm installations, and promote collaborative community healthcare initiatives in the area. It is engaging station officers in developing specific station plans and working to push risk assessments down to the local station level. There is more, but you get the picture.
What is happening in Tucson is not without challenges. Don’t we all have them? Anyone reading this from their area should be aware that they know there is a long row to hoe. But applying the principles of CRR to all department operations is their goal. And in my humble opinion, it is the future leaders like Chief Baker who will help make it happen because the road is longer than any one administration.
As past president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, Laura has a platform from which she can promote the concepts of CRR elsewhere in the nation. At events including Fire-Rescue International and at the National Fire Academy, Laura and her compatriot Chief Mike Carsten have been spreading the word of the need for the fire service to move in this direction.
Laura’s view is that the value future firefighters need to place in the department, and in themselves, is to focus more proactively on the problems they encounter, get to the root of the problems, and find ways to solve them. To develop relationships with the community, which is many times more diverse than we realize, and so to be able to understand and relate to that diverse community. To convince the community that fire is everyone’s fight, and that they have a role in reducing risks from fire and other common emergencies-because no fire department has all the resources they need to care for everyone.
And when firefighters embrace these concepts, they begin to look at themselves as a kind of guardian and servant of the community where a multitude of risks are attacked proactively. They start helping the community solve problems for themselves, all the while helping to manage call volume and improve public safety. And they begin to see the positive results of enhanced community relationships as they get outside the fire station and become more proactive members of the community they serve.
This change in firefighters’ values will take a very long time. Tucson is looking at it now because so many people have retired, and the department has a chance to recruit and train new employees with the right skills and attitudes that will continue to propagate these values. It can do this while taking advantage of the skill sets already in place and the many high-quality individuals who already reach beyond the immediate needs of emergency response.
Chief Baker and her peers are to be commended for their leadership in this arena. It is a long row for the fire service of the entire nation to hoe-not just one department. In my opinion, we need more like her.