Extraordinary and urgent – these two words can describe my takeaways from yesterday’s U.S. Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control. Hosted at the historic National Fire Academy grounds in Emmitsburg, Maryland, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell kicked off the second such summit to take place since President Harry S. Truman’s historic 1947 Fire Forum. Approximately 500 attended in person with an additional 3,000 attending virtually, representing 15 nations.
Dr. Moore-Merrell reminded attendees of the “Fire Service, One Voice” intent underpinning USFA efforts, and the many fire service leaders speaking at the summit reinforced this message throughout the event. Even President Joe Biden made a live appearance via video, supporting the USFA’s efforts as well as the work of firefighters throughout the country.
Biden spoke to the many successes of fire service funding and process and recognized the need to do more. He thanked everyone present and listening online for their service and sacrifice, and lamented he was unable to join us face-to-face due to the critical security issues involving the escalating Middle East conflict.
Leaders share testimonies on 6 critical areas
The mission of the morning session was to bring government officials together to hear testimonies from fire service leaders representing six key work groups that were an outgrowth of the 2022 Summit:
- Wildfire and Climate Change: Chief Donna Black, immediate past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC)
- Recruitment and Retention: Deputy Chief Kevin Quinn, National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)
- Firefighter Cancer: Ed Kelly, general president, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)
- Mental Health and Wellbeing: Chief Ernie Mitchell, National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF)
- EV and Energy Transition: Dr. Steve Kerber, vice president and executive director, UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute (FSRI)
- Codes and Standards: Jim Pauley, president, National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
In addition to Dr. Moore-Merrell, the government officials participating in the roundtable listening session included Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of homeland security; Deanne Criswell, FEMA administrator; Caitlin Durkovich, deputy homeland security advisor for resilience and response; and joining virtually, Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, homeland security advisor.
Prior to hearing testimony, each of the officials was afforded the opportunity to speak to their understanding of the issues affecting the fire service. Secretary Mayorkas commented that, “the calls firefighters respond to are as varied as life itself – but the character is constant.” The secretary provided a brief overview of important fire service issues on his radar, including a program under development to provide interface training more broadly; the need to reauthorize the $700 million in Fire Act grant funds; firefighter cancers and PFAS; and the general need for additional funding.
Recognizing the mental health and resilience needs of firefighters, Dr. Sherwood-Randall noted how the threats firefighters face have always been considered dangerous but are now understood to be dangerous and personal. Further, reflecting on her experience visiting Maui after the devastating wildfires earlier this year, Administrator Criswell was the first of several to reflect, “there are things that just can’t be unseen,” highlighting the importance of focused attention on mental resilience for firefighters.
The testimonies were presented in a report to the U.S. fire administrator earlier this year. The executive summary provided to each attendee details the six areas of testimony provided by each leader.
1. Wildfire and Climate Change – Chief Donna Black
Chief Black opened by stating that climate change is a “global transformational phenomenon,” highlighting the increasing drought and wildfire threats, and suggested we needed a paradigm shift to combat the problem.
“We continue to build toward risk as communities spread,” Chief Black said, adding how this “leads to traditional structural firefighters ending up in an interface firefight” where they have received “little training to meet the wildfire need.” She also commented how the structural firefighters, in many cases, lack appropriate gear for the wildland environments, resulting in additional overheating risk. With respect to the need for “correct gear for the environment we’re fighting,” Chief Black reminded the officials that gear needs to be fitted for both men and women. Lamenting on citizens’ failing to believe that wildland fires could impact their community, Chief Black closed with a simple message: “We need our citizens to be involved.”
Secretary Mayorkas asked about centralized training currently in place for the fire service, recognizing the National Fire Academy’s role, and tried to make the connection of centralized law enforcement training through the Department of Justice to the fire service. Dr. Moore-Merrell commented that the USFA simply was not funded to a similar level.
Advisor Durkovich queried what the ask would be for the gear deficiencies. Reflecting on the 1.2 million firefighters in the U.S., along with the need for two sets of gear, Moore-Merrell reflected that “we simply don’t have the data to tell this story.”
2. Recruitment and Retention – Chief Kevin Quinn
What was most remarkable about Chief Quinn and General President Kelly’s comments was that they both recognized that each area of discussion was both a paid and volunteer issue. Chief Quinn commented that “we need to address the shortage of volunteer and career firefighters across the country. Unemployment is at its lowest since 1968 and people have options that takes themselves to other communities. Volunteer departments are struggling and paid departments are ordering overtime callback.” Kelly added that the era of people provided service where they grew up has in large part come and gone. If people have a chance to make more money, they’ll exit the fire service for another option.
Chief Quinn underscored to the committee the following needs:
- Assemble recruitment and retention best practices into an online repository.
- Support the NVFC efforts with the Department of Education with apprenticeship programs.
- Support the IAFF apprenticeship efforts, which can provide a path for young firefighters to start as a volunteer.
- Work with the military to bridge EMS training, as veterans provide some of our best firefighters.
Durkovich asked where prospective firefighters go to learn about volunteer opportunities. Chief Quinn explained the NVFC effort Make Me a Firefighter. Several other officials engaged in the discussion, and General President Kelly explained how the IAFF wants to mirror what the building trade unions have done with apprenticeship programs. In listening to the recruitment and retention struggles, Mayorkas commented that he would facilitate the connection for the fire service to make a presentation to the national education task force.
3. Firefighter Cancer – IAFF President Ed Kelly
Kelly underscored that “we must act now” and do whatever it takes to end the scourge of cancer, as “time is of the essence.” He emphasized that we must ensure that “education and prevention are part of everything we do.”
Kelly spoke to PFAS concerns that are not only in the foams of the past but also now found in firefighter gear. He also made the point that PFAS is also found in shampoos, photography equipment, stain-resistant products, fast food packaging, non-stick cookware, paints and pesticides – but firefighting seems to get much of the blame.
Specific to the issue of gear, Durkovich asked what it would take to get us there. Pauley and Dr. Kerber joined in the conversation, underscoring the fact that the PFAS-free gear was not yet ready for production, and that there is a process to get through the standards and certifications. Durkovich again asked, “What will it take when the new standard gear is approved, to get production and delivery?” Everyone acknowledged this would be a long and expensive process, and Dr. Moore-Merrell reiterated the need for data to accurately answer that question.
Kelly also urged expanding the list of cancers covered by the Public Safety Officers’ Benefits (PSOB) program, and asked that officials “help us minimize the risk of us dying, take care of our families, and give us what we need to do our jobs.”
4. Mental Health and Wellbeing – Chief Ernie Mitchell
“For too long, mental health was something we just brushed aside,” said Chief Mitchell, adding that “about 20% of firefighters meet the thresholds for an official diagnosis of PTSD, and [firefighters] have double the suicide rate of the general public.”
Chief Mitchell detailed several requests from the report:
- Break the culture of silence
- Repository for best practices for dealing with and providing resources for mental resiliency
- Financial support
- Clinicians trained for the fire service
- Interstate licensing compact for mental health services
- Specific Z-code for the fire service
- The need to start resilience training in recruit schools
Durkovich asked whether they had considered using retired fire chiefs for peer counseling to which Mitchell replied, “Well, no.” That became an action item!
5. EV and Energy Transition – Dr. Steve Kerber
Speaking to damaged and third-party lithium-ion battery systems, Dr. Kerber commented “what used to take minutes to reach flashover is now happening in seconds.” There was good discussion about how these fires expedite thermal runaway. He also discussed the USFA effort to gain data from partners and others across the United States.
Criswell asked if there was enough training on this issue. Kerber noted that the methodology was currently brand specific, and the research industry does not currently have the resources or facilities to conduct the research, let alone the training. Kerber explained that in many cases we are conducting ad hoc training, which should not be the way it works. He added that “manufacturers do not have a uniform response to how the fire service should fight these fires. EVs were not designed for firefighter intervention.”
Dr. Steve Kerber on lithium-ion battery fires: “Beneficial innovation can sometimes lead to unintended consequences … research must be forward-thinking” – #USFASummit @FSRI_org @DrLoriUSFA @usfire #firefighters pic.twitter.com/mZqmD2HjdR
— FireRescue1 (@FireRescue1) October 10, 2023
6. Codes and Standards – Jim Pauley
Pauley commented how there were more than 300 fire codes and yet the fire problem continues to expand. He stated that every building funded by the federal government should be required to follow and enforce the building codes. Pauley went on to suggest that all federal-funded construction projects should meet current codes and those requiring housing assistance should be tied to codes as well. Pauley discussed retrofitting, smoke alarms, sprinklers, and policy decisions we need to make.
Mayorkas asked if the insurance industry could be a driving force in this effort. Pauley responded that, “We need the insurance industry to reengage in the processes.” Mayorkas suggested a letter to the Conference of Mayors to help in this effort – a takeaway he indicated he’d work on with Pauley.
Chief discussion with audience interaction
Following the panel discussion among fire service leaders and government officials, Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel and FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Frank Leeb moderated an open question and answer session about all of the aforementioned topics, not as an exchange with the leaders or officials, but amongst the audience members.
Questions and comments focused on a variety of topics: mental health, residential sprinklers, requiring code compliance for grant acceptance, the urgency to put money where its needed, pay cycle changes to aid retention, federal funding for gear that fits female firefighters, and the need for international peer discussions.
Both Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder and I spoke to the issue of residential sprinklers. I highlighted the fact that 90% or more of our fire deaths could be eliminated with sprinkler legislation. And in response to a viewer question about why this doesn’t happen, Goldfeder said it comes down to money and politics: "It's because the homebuilders' associations fight us, because it's a billion-dollar business to rebuild burned-down homes, and there's a lot of politics involved in that, so money gets exchanged at the political level. That's why we don't have sprinklers in every home."
IAFC President Chief John Butler addressed the audience. He relayed that as he goes around the country and sits down at firehouses, he asks members, “What keeps you up at night.” The number one response among younger members is behavioral health. He emphasized that the exercise serves as confirmation that the topic must remain on the national discussion stage.
State of Science: Afternoon rapid-fire sessions
The afternoon “State of Science” portion of the event featured “rapid-fire” presentations, each with several speakers given 5 minutes to share the latest and greatest information and data on the following topics:
- Fire and Emergency Technology, moderated by Tonya Hoover, deputy U.S. fire administrator
- Climate Change, moderated by Vickie Pritchett, vice president for advocacy and outreach for the National Fire Sprinkler Association (NFSA)
- Fire-Based EMS Innovation, moderated by DC Fire and EMS Chief John Donnelly
- Firefighter Health and Safety, moderated by Bill Webb, executive director, Congressional Fire Services Institute
- Data and Technology Innovation, moderated by Dave Alexander from the Office of Science and Engineering, DHS
- Community Engagement, moderated by Justin Knighten, director of the Office of External Affairs, FEMA
Each 5-minute segment could warrant a full article, so we’ll tackle that one step at a time. The full agenda with speaker biographies can be found on the USFA Summit Agenda page.
Time is of the essence
We have seen several of these listening sessions, but how many sessions will it take? The USFA is, and has been, woefully underfunded to perform the functions necessary to run a professional (paid and volunteer) system for fire departments across the country. I applaud the strong work that Dr. Moore-Merrell is doing to strengthen the “Fire Service, One Voice” mantra, and we all must continue moving forward with a unified voice. Time is indeed of the essence and urgency is the word of the day. Become involved with our fire service organizations working on your behalf – organizations like the IAFC and CFSI – as they will be our paths forward to success.