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The Future of the Fire & Emergency Service  
 

IAFC On Scene: June 1, 2012

The future of the fire and emergency service is very predictable. Look at the 2010 U.S. census; pay attention to the methods and materials of construction. Think about today’s communications media and watch the news!

The issues associated with these areas are neither good nor bad; they just are. How we choose to deal with them is our choice.

We can take advantage of the knowledge available and prepare, or we can bury our heads in the sand and just deal with the consequences after the fact. But changes are coming nonetheless; here are the trends we need to be aware of and be ready to respond to.

Aging Population

The 2010 census it telling us all—loud and clear—that our population is aging. We’re all living longer. You can look at that as an opportunity to expand the fire and emergency services or see it as a problem to avoid. It’s your choice, but the facts aren’t going to change. If you don’t respond to seniors’ needs, they’ll find someone who will.

Born between 1946 and 1964, Baby Boomers represent 78 million people among a U.S. population of about 307 million—roughly 25%. They began turning 65 in 2011 and their current life expectancy is about 85 years. The end of the Boomer generation (those born in 1964) will reach their life expectancy in 2049—just a little less than 40 years from now.

They’ll create the same level of demand from the fire and emergency service as they once did on maternity hospitals and schools when they were young and the housing and stock market in their middle age. There’s another boom coming: the data has told us for years that senior citizens are the high-risk group for fire, the high-risk group for accidents and the high-demand group for EMS.

Boomers are moving into congregate housing—condo-style buildings that contain independent living, assisted living and full nursing care on one premise. These buildings are being built in every community.

During times of disaster—flood, earthquake, hurricane, blizzard, power outage, road closings—the people who are supposed to take care of these seniors won’t show up to work. Many people in those buildings will be one day away from dying because of a critical medication or medical treatment they need. These buildings will be islands of total dependence on the fire and emergency service at the very time those organizations will be over-taxed by an emergency.

Boomers have been politically active their entire lives. They don’t care about schools because their children are grown. They don’t care about roads because many don’t drive. Their principal locus of concern is obtaining help when they need it. If they pick up the phone to dial 911, when they hang up, they want to hear sirens. If not, their next call will be to your boss.

Construction Methods and Materials

Despite the hard work of many dedicated people, it’s almost impossible for building codes to keep up with the methods and materials of construction; that’s one reason we’re changing to performance-based codes.

Dwellings, where most U.S. fire deaths occur, are being built to serve two needs: to conserve energy and to withstand the elements. Once they get wet or hot, all bets are off. They’re insured and they’re disposable and we’ll build another one to replace the one that burned down or was flooded out. How does that change your strategy and tactics?

Communications and Social Media

The social media wave is changing the world, from the dissolution of dictatorships to the practices of local sheriff’s departments. Everything we do today is on camera; communication is immediate and widespread.

Whatever you do, right or wrong, will be recorded. Every decision you make at an emergency will be subject to scrutiny for months and years to come, including in the courtroom.

It will take nine justices of the Supreme Court, with all the benefit of hindsight, previous court decisions, scholarly research and hours of questioning to determine whether the decision you made in 10 seconds with 15% of the information you needed was the right one. Don’t believe it? Ask the Arizona cop who arrested Ernesto Miranda for kidnapping and rape.

Legal Challenges

Prepare for visits from the feasance brothers—mis-, mal- and non-. Firefighters are going to law school, and law firms are hiring fire experts. At the NFA, we often receive Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about training records. When something bad happens, the first things lawyers look at are the training records of people who were in charge of or at the emergency. The record for fastest request was a September FOIA on an August LODD—three weeks after the fire! Train, test and document.

Get Ready Now

These issues are as predictable as the sun coming up tomorrow. If you were told the winning numbers in next week’s lottery, you’d buy a ticket. If you were told there would be a flood next week, you’d take action to protect your family and property.

These and other issues are what the fire and emergency service will face over the next 40 years. Training, education, preparation and planning will be your best friends, failure to do so your worst enemy.

Dr. Denis Onieal is the superintendent of the U.S. National Fire Academy.