I had the pleasure and honor to be invited to speak at the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Fire Prevention banquet. Below is my presentation as written. Obviously I did not read the presentation, however, I did cover all the concepts below, which seemed to be very well received. Hopefully all of us can take something out of this presentation and the need to continue to review what we do, and figure out how we can do it better for our “Whole Community.”
Philly Fire October 14, 2015
Disaster Preparedness the Future of Fire Prevention Education
Fire Prevention is what we do, know and love…Stop, Drop and Roll, Change your Clock, change your battery, exit drills in the house, but why are we limiting ourselves?? Yesterday’s Fire Prevention is today’s Disaster Preparedness….remember when no one wanted to be in OEM, everyone wanted to be a firefighter, or a cop, pretty much everything but OEM, because there was no respect in OEM, they were known as the office of “other duties as assigned”, right…it was not that long ago, and then two maybe three major events happened…and one major shift occurred.
So briefly lets talk about emergency management and how it is similar to the fire service.
Way back in the day, we had lots of fires and we were firefighters. Then, thanks to code changes, building construction changes (although we don’t have time to talk about some of this new firefighter killing building construction), changes in materials for bedding and couches, the number of fires dropped. No longer were we burning out houses every weekend. We had to change the way we do business, we have taken on “different roles.”
So over the course of the last two hundred plus years, government has also been in and out of the emergency management business, but really wanted nothing to do with emergency management. Government wanted the churches, Red Cross and other non-profit non-government organizations to take care of disaster response and recovery. In 1979 a little event happened up my way on an island in the Susquehanna River at a place called Three Mile Island, within a relatively short time period President Carter signed an executive order and created the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. FEMA has had quite some existence. Reagan was going to get rid of FEMA, and it was used to basically prepare us for the cold war threat and nuclear war. Bush I continued it, then Clinton came along and brought his Emergency Manager along from Arkansas and made it a cabinet position. Under James Lee Witt we began preparing for natural disasters, including many projects like Project Impact in Washington preparing for earthquakes. Then Bush II came along, as did 9-11, and emergency management became a counter-terrorism centric organization. Five years later we encountered this wind event known as Hurricane Katrina and we again changed, this time to all-hazards. This is where we need to go, we cannot be just a “fire service,” and emergency management really is what we do anyway, we are an all hazards organization! I remember when we still had fire alarm boxes on the corners in Lancaster. Many times we would respond to a “pull box” and it had nothing to do with the fire service, but the citizens knew if they pulled the alarm we would come, just like today, if they call 911, we will come. We don’t refuse service because it is not a fire!
Let me talk briefly about the events and where we were, where we are and where I think we need to be going.
The first major Event was 9-11. On 9-11, in which 343 of our fellow firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice was, in my opinion, the first real emergency management event in my mind. 9-11 is when we began the cultivation of the profession of emergency management. Emergency management is three Cs, Communication, Collaboration and COORDINATION! 9-11 needed coordination and needed an agency to be the coordinator of Fire, Law Enforcement, EMS, Search and Rescue teams and the private sector. Isn’t that what we do every day in the fire service, we coordinate resources! 9-11 was the beginning of the profession of emergency management, creating that “umbrella” that the emergency services and non-governmental agencies and private sector all work under.
9-11 did something that may not have been otherwise possible for emergency management; it freed up money and it brought us all to the same “sandbox” for a common purpose. We started to train together; we began to get money from the federal government for equipment, training and exercises. Law enforcement, Fire, EMS, emergency management, the business community, and all levels of government began working in the same sandbox, for a common cause and a common goal. Planning became the process versus our reactionary nature from the past, we became proactive.
This leads to event two, the wind event known as Hurricane Katrina. We had spent a whole lot of money, time and resources planning for the next 9-11 when Katrina struck. It is no surprise to anyone in this room, but we have a lot more natural disasters in our nation then we do manmade events or terrorism activities. Katrina is when we decided that our profession needed more professionals. We had an organization and Certified Emergency Manager, but our profession needed to expand and it needed more professionals to supplement those we already had in the profession.
We had Katrina, then a third event Hurricane Sandy, which you experienced here in Philadelphia and then maybe even a forth event we can include, the Boston Marathon bombing, So these are the events, but what’s the shift….education. Although many programs in higher education were being developed in Homeland Security and Emergency Management, it was Katrina that started the rise in student numbers in emergency management, and the creation of more professionals, with BOTH experience AND education!
I realized education and experience were important when I was interviewed for the fire department. The Deputy Chief interviewing me told me to get my education, it is, as he said, one of those things in life they cannot take away from you once you have it. I went to school and what did I hear, “hey kid you don’t need no books to put out fires…” Do you know that our local community college is contemplating dropping their fire science program for a lack of interest and thinking of switching to an emergency management program instead! Let me ask you a question, is a degree almost mandatory to get promoted? Many fire departments and law enforcement agencies all but require advanced degrees to get promoted. However, I want to make sure you don’t misunderstand me, education is important but experience is vital. I learned most of what I know about disaster preparedness from those from the first generation of emergency managers
So what does this all have to do with today and Fire Prevention? Well, we need to go back to the roots of Philadelphia and the beginning of emergency management, except Ben Franklin called it the volunteer fire service, neighbor helping neighbor…sound familiar…the Whole Community approach! This is what I teach and preach at the university, this is what I teach and preach for FEMA, but more importantly, this is what I preach at home…more about that in a bit! Walking the talk as they say! This is what the current administration is pushing, the Whole Community approach to emergency management. There are not enough responders to help everyone in need when a disaster strikes. We need to use our resources wisely. If we train the masses on what to do before and during a disaster, this is less people relying on our limited number of responders, and also people that can assist their neighbors, again reducing the burden on an already taxed response system.
Lets go back to where I started…stop, drop and roll..and exit drills in the house, etc. are great programs, but they don’t go far enough……we need a culture shift, all-hazards, all disasters…remember the Station night club fire, why did they die? They tried to leave the way they entered, seven other exits…over one hundred dead civilians because they were creature of habit. We need to teach better habits, and it is so simple if we start when they are young. This coin of culture shift has two sides, education for us as responders, and a change of preparedness habits for our communities. We need to teach good habits!
We need to teach people preparedness, not Fire Prevention or crime prevention…all hazards….did 911 not prove this to be true, people lived because they had practiced “fire drills” and those drills assisted them when this heinous act occurred. As firefighters, are we doing our community justice by just teaching Fire Prevention?
Who has access to our kids to teach them basic preparedness, things they will remember for life, good habits….we do, us, firefighters, we have access to the children, let’s not limit them to fire safety, but let’s teach them about all hazards, let’s change the culture and teach good habits.
Can it work you ask? Yes, I have my very own case study. Remember how I talked about preaching it at home? I have a soon to be 21 year old son, David, who is my case study. By the way, he goes to Drexel, here in Philly. The first thing we did when he decided to come here for school was to pick two meeting places so if something happens, we can meet when the cell phones don’t work. He knows to go and wait for Dad, although I can also say now that I have a few of Philly’s finest in my classes, I have been offered safe haven in firehouses too for him.
If this is not enough for you to believe about teaching good habits from when they are young, well let me tell you this story. David and I were visiting colleges in the Midwest a few years ago. We got back to the hotel and I asked him to go see what the hotel had at the restaurant. He came back to the room a short time later and said 5 and 7. I said what the heck is 5 and 7, he said the doors to the exits left and right. Since David was small we traveled a good bit and it is always the first thing I had him do, count the doors. He counted the doors, I did not have to ask….that is good fire prevention, but also preparedness no matter the disaster. As I mentioned, people in the WTC were doing exit drills before 9-11, a fire drill, but it was basic preparedness, disaster preparedness. Those “fire drills” saved many lives.
We need to teach these habits, who has the opportunity to teach kids preparedness, the fire service, let’s broaden our horizons, let’s make Disaster Preparedness our new Fire Prevention.
The Cultural shift is needed, we cannot be all things to all people. We need to train the masses to help themselves, no matter the disaster. We need to get educated both informally and formally in emergency management to understand not only how important the profession is, but why it is important that we become professionals in emergency management and disaster preparedness
We, the fire service, have the opportunity to do what it is that we say we do every day, PROTECT THE PUBLIC!, but we have to be Thinking outside the Box…out of necessity we should accept the responsibility of not just talking about fires, but talking about preparedness in general…we cannot do things the way we used to do things. I am counting on you, my son is counting on you, your citizens are counting on you, don’t let us down! Thank you