We’ve been looking back at the fire service through the decades – 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. The fire service changed, adapted and grew significantly over those 30 years. Forces propelling the changes gained momentum from social unrest, technological advances and scientific discovery, plus the significant fires and emergency incidents that prepared firefighters for a new century.
When it comes to 2000-2009, call it whatever you’d like – the aughts, the ‘00s – but the most fitting name might be the “wormhole decade.” Wormhole denotes or describes the vague feeling that we are all moving and changing in response to outside forces moving at warp speed.
Keeping up with such change was the real challenge for the fire service.
Defining the fire service role
At the start of the 21st century, there was a marked decline in structure fires, which left some questioning the role of fire departments. Some suggested rolling fire suppression into the scope of other services, such as law enforcement. Such a holistic public safety officer concept had been around awhile but never gained traction because of its many drawbacks.
Many fire departments instead assumed new responsibilities that grew out of special local needs. The best option for many was EMS. Expanding a fire department’s scope of operation made it easier to justify budgets that maintained or increased staffing.
Another endeavor assumed in some locales was emergency management, making disaster response and planning a new or reimagined duty.
Further, throughout the decade, many private sector organizations were creating mission statements and organizational goals that followed strategic planning efforts. The same idea caught on in the public sector, and fire department leadership soon found themselves looking critically at their own organizational structure and purpose. Drafting strategic plans led to the creation of many fire department mission statements – statements that many members believed to be stating the obvious.
Of course, this exercise in planning was always linked to the department budget, either to justify it or cut it.
Fire service leaders and city managers soon realized that the skill set essential to leading a large modern fire department required knowledge of organizational management, which in turn led to the need for a college degree for fire chiefs of career or combination departments. A shift toward higher education was underway.
Most decades are remembered for one or two important happenings, while a few stand out for having a greater impact with long-term implications. The 1990s are remembered for the stock market dot-com bubble, flip phones, and our favorite flop threat, Y2K.
By 2000, more than half of Americans had computers and internet access in their homes. As internet usage skyrocketed, a host of new devices and platforms – iPhones and iPads, plus Facebook and Twitter, among others – found their way into the mainstream.
Improvement in management and administration depended heavily on computers and specialized software – and firefighters adapted as well. Computers and dedicated records management software became essential in fire department offices. Claims that computers would also someday be in all fire apparatus were scoffed at, but later proved accurate. Computers mounted in fire apparatus optimized storage and retrieval of map books and preplans.
Terrorism changes everything
Beyond all the technological advancements and the enhanced education, we know that the decade is notable for one thing more than any other – an act of terrorism against American civilians that forever changed the county and the American fire service. The Al-Qaeda terrorists who struck on Sept. 11, 2001, used technology in a unique way by hijacking airliners to then wielding them as a weapons of mass destruction.
At the sites of the 9/11 attacks, the bravery and sacrifice of firefighters redefined the fire service in the eyes of Americans, and the fallout from the attacks led to sweeping change that fundamentally reshaped the fire service. The changes affected training at all levels, influenced apparatus design, plus enhanced readiness for special technical operations, firefighter safety and occupational health. The demands on the modern firefighter now far exceed what was expected in the past. Budgets had to be increased, and where local funding fell short, federal grants were sought to shore up finances and accomplish the mission.
One example: The federal grant awards required certain compliance, formal incident management or ICS. Through the following years, the grants had a direct impact in American communities, even the smallest or most rural ones. As a result, the American fire service became one of the most advanced and equipped in the world.
Firefighter I and II training programs are now the norm, and most career chiefs have college degrees. Fire apparatus size grew to accommodate enclosed crew cabs, larger pumps, more tools and more technology. Even smaller departments now have a dedicated command vehicle, something rarely seen in the past except for in the larger cities. Where portable radios were once large, bulky and carried only by command officers, they are now more compact and their use widespread. Advanced turnout gear designed and built for hazards beyond firefighting became the norm.
The 19th century saw the beginnings of a career fire service. The model followed mimicked and evolved from the volunteer system. In the 20th century, the career fire service advanced and set new standards that the volunteers subsequently adopted to become more like career departments. The 9/11 attacks provided a force for change that pushed the fire service into the 21st century.
Time is not static. There will be other game-changing events in the coming years, along with new ideas and setbacks. Where we once joked about 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress, we may have to restate it as, “200 years of tradition followed by never-ending change.”