The Future of Fire Protection

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WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT IN YOUR CAREER

In the future, fire service personnel will have to do more work with less help; productivity will be an important worker trait. There will be increasing emphasis on built-in fire protection devices. Electronics and computers will be just as important to the fire fighter as water, hose, and ladders. More personnel will be specialized into staff or specialized positions. Many of these positions will be civilianized. Many of the future jobs in the fire service will not be combat-oriented, suppression personnel. There will be more emphasis on education and certification for promotion. More women will be serving in different capacities.

Firefighting apparatus will probably get smaller, more like the "attack" pumpers of today. Fire departments will probably be more involved in research and development of chemicals to fight fire, such as Halons and water additives.

Equipment is likely to get lighter and lighter. This may mean that emphasis on the physical aspects of firefighting will be replaced by an increasing emphasis on a person's mental capabilities. Personnel will be expected to think their way through the challenges. This will probably result in even more emphasis on certification and training and education for individuals before promotions in the fire service. This could have the effect of drawing a line of distinction in the fire service between the entry level personnel and the officers. Those who have the education and knowledge will be promoted faster than those who don't.



PERFORMANCE AND PRODUCTIVITY

Performance and productivity will probably be the battle cry of the future. Current trends towards tax reform and reduction of the total amount of funds devoted to government may result in more fire protection services being taken over by private enterprise. Those areas which still want the government to be responsible for fire protection may seek ways of reducing overhead costs. This could result in the consolidation of several different fire agencies into super-agencies. Smaller fire agencies may see the necessity of forming joint-powers agreements or regionalizing into one large fire department.

An emphasis on the concept of standards may result in the adoption of entry level standards all across the country. NFPA Standard 1001 may form the basic criteria in every fire agency. This could also cause the examinations and minimum standards for promotion to become more standardized from department to department. As a result, a person may have the opportunity to move from one community to another with no loss of seniority or benefits. This concept of professional mobility may result in a class of professional officers with executive privilege like that exercised private enterprise.

This does not mean that the fire service will become standardized. Standards imply a sense of sameness. Increased professionalism and standards of education could result in more uniform application of principles and theory. But that does not mean that all fire agencies will be alike in practice or procedure. Communities will retain the sense of identity which makes it necessary to create fire protection customized to a particular area. Our cities will not change, our approaches to their problems will. We will probably see a veritable kaleidoscope of customized fire protection.

Based on more effective use of data, fire agencies will develop a standard approach that says "if there is to be a standard, it will be to provide a level of service that is economically correct for the local fire problem." Fire protection may take on the trappings of a business-like function. It may become much more sensitive to such factors as local tax bases and insurance program pay-offs.

The most obvious thing that will result from all of these endeavors is that there will probably be a net reduction in the total resources a community will devote to fire protection. This may frighten those who are in service at the time and may result in labor turmoil in the future.

OFFENSE VERSUS DEFENSE

Avoiding the catastrophic theory of reform has always been a goal of the fire service. In the future, it may become a realistic goal. As a result of more careful planning and the analysis of data on fire problems, the fire service may have the opportunity to go from a defensive posture to a more aggressive one. Already, fire chiefs, fire marshals, fire inspectors, and other staff members are taking strong leadership roles in city planning and in community policies on land use.

As the fire problem becomes more manageable, there may be a reduction in number of fire companies and in the number of suppression personnel. This may be offset by an increase in fire inspectors, training staff, public education personnel, and computer operators. With the emphasis shifting towards reducing the combustibility of the environment, jobs in the functions of plan-checking, consultation, inspection of built-in facilities, research, and development may pay more than tailboard firefighters.

The immediate future may not see the development of the completely fire-proof structure, but land-use and the need for low-cost housing because more densely built housing developments and an increase in pre-fabricated structures. And prefabricated homes may be required to be built from modules that utilize self-extinguishing materials that are both low cost and strong enough to resist fire.

There may well be an increased emphasis on the writing of codes and ordinances to better control the fire problem. Accidental fire may someday be considered an act of negligence. Spiraling costs of construction and insurance rates, and the depletion of natural resources, may make current levels of fire loss unacceptable. This may lead to the necessity for much more rigid enforcement of fire codes than are tolerated by society today. This may cause an increase in either private or public sector fire inspection activities.

COMPLEXITY OF THE FIRE PROBLEM

The fire problems of the future will become more complex. Even as we predict an increased emphasis on fire prevention and a decreased emphasis on combat personnel, we must note that firefighting may become even more hazardous. Conditions today point to that possibility.

Take the energy crisis for example. Hydrogen and nuclear power may become major sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. Solar energy may create problems of its own. My own department has already had several fires caused by improperly installed solar units. Hydrogen and liquefied gases may come to be used as vehicle fuels. This could greatly increase the danger from such a simple incident as a vehicle fire.

Hydrogen is a gas. In order to be used as fuel, it has to be condensed into a liquefied form and stored. When hydrogen is stored like that it is called a cryogenic. Cryogenic liquids are very cold and if a cylinder ruptures, the gas instantly vaporizes. You cannot control its flow as you can a gasoline leak. Hydrogen is also the smallest molecule known to man. It can leak out of the smallest opening possible. Once hydrogen is in the atmosphere it has an explosive range from four to seventy-five percent. When it burns, the flame temperature is nearly 3500 degrees, and the flame is almost invisible.

Even if nuclear and hydrogen power do not evolve, there will be synthetic fuels to replace the gasoline and diesel fuel of today. The fuel may be a solid fuel pellet, or it could be a chemical that creates new problems that we have not yet even imagined.

CHANGES IN FIRE COMBAT

Combat personnel may change, too. Fires will continue to occur. Firefighters will always be required to fight them. The infantry of the fire service will probably always be with us, but it may be different. Inasmuch as personnel costs are the major part of any fire service budget, there will be an emphasis on productivity in the combat ranks too. Salaries are constantly increasing, and tax bases are stretched to the limit in many places. So the firefighter of the future may be expected to be many things to many people.

The work week may decrease and the current practice of having fire companies on a twenty four-hour shift may disappear. However, fire personnel may become even better paid and the fringe benefits become even better than they are today. Instead of becoming highly specialized in the task of fire combat, the future firefighter may become more of a generalist. As the specialists take on more and more of the technical sides of built-in fire protection, the combat firefighter may have to become more involved in the people service. Someday all firefighters may be qualified as either emergency medical or paramedical personnel. At the very least, they will be expected to be certified at basic levels of competency in emergency services.

Future professional firefighters may select their careers while they are still in high school or at least by the time they have reached the age of twenty-one. This may be required because of the mental and psychological parameters that will be set forth for entry into the profession. Preparation for entrance into the fire service will have to be even more deliberate than it is today.

Testing for candidates' abilities and interests will be used to direct personnel into one of two curriculums. Not unlike the medical and legal professions today, a candidate may become a professional or technician if he or she does not appear to have the credentials to handle the more difficult curriculum. Others may be selected to become the professional and receive a more difficult educational path. The choice may be made by the individual or by the entry level requirement. In either case, we can expect fire service agencies to become even more interested in counseling future personnel. This may even extend into the providing of sponsorships or scholarships to attend specified colleges and schools.
 
Identification of basic knowledge and abilities coupled with intensive pre-entry training and education may result in almost total disappearance of on-the-job training as we know it today. The probationary candidate of tomorrow may come from technical school well-prepared to function; the well-prepared cadet fresh from a state or national fire academy may simply step into the ranks.

That doesn't mean that firefighters will stop their continual training. To remain current with technological changes, the fire service of the future will probably use computer-driven teaching machines to inform personnel of new material. Utilizing individualized training and education files, fire personnel will review old material and be updated as needed. As the computer acquires information about a particular person, there will be little need for repetition. In-service training will be almost entirely directed toward acquiring new skills and knowledge. Periodic reviews of a person's file by her or his superior may replace performance evaluations.

To give you an example of how close we are on that one element, this entire textbook was written on a word processor in a computer, and much of the data used to write was retrieved from a system called "profile."

The use of computers will not be restricted to tutoring fire personnel. With the computer's ability to store, retrieve, and manipulate data it will become a prime tool of the fire manager in the future. Computer-driven management information systems, some of which are in their infancy today will multiply into total documentation systems to dwarf today's efforts. Besides recording and reporting data, they will be used to predict or simulate fire problems and then analyze different ways of dealing with them. They will become a big part of the decision-making process of the future fire officer.

We study the past of the fire service to learn a little bit about the history and traditions of a very proud occupation. But we cannot rely on the past to provide us anything to use except a mission. We study the present to learn about the way things are today. But that too is changing.

We study the future to survive. Today's fire apparatus is beautiful, chrome-plated, and powerful, but it could be a dinosaur in a few years. Its electronic siren is a far cry from the clanging of the bell on a steamer. Yet only a few lifespan cover the transition from horsepower to diesel power. The question now is, "what does the future hold for the fire service?"

The way we fight fire will change, but the burden of responsibility will not. You will have an opportunity to participate in that change. The challenges you will face will be big ones. The changes you will witness will be controversial and dynamic. You can choose to be part of the change or to resist, but it will happen nonetheless.

There are some real problems in accurately predicting the future. Technological and sociological change occurs so rapidly that accuracy in forecasting the distant future is limited. At best, predictions of the future are restricted to anticipating change created by factors and conditions that are part of our knowledge today.

Forecasting the future has almost as much freedom from criticism as the traditional "Monday morning quarterbacking." Because if our predictions are right we can always say I told you so. If they are wrong, we can always blame it on new information that was not available when we made the predications.

As a future member of the fire service, you ought to consider seriously the possibilities of change. It could affect your preparation for the job. It could affect your desires for the job. It could affect your actions once you have gotten into the service. You need to consider the future because that is where you will play out all of the realities of a career that will either be a satisfaction or a disappointment to you.

I, for one, am very positive about the future. The fire service promises to continue to be a challenging and rewarding profession. As a professional fire officer, I cannot see allowing the future to occur randomly. We should try to shape the future by taking positive steps. Your reading of this text is one such step. When I first became a firefighter almost twenty-five years ago, there were no counselors or materials about the field of fire protection. Now we are preparing people to enter the career, instead of letting it happen accidently. If you become one of the select people to enter the fire service, it will be your mission to help shape the future of the fire service, too.
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