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