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COMMENTARY | Fire departments must embrace three important measures to adequately prepare for a future laden with uncertainty.
Americans have witnessed a number of catastrophic fires in the last few years that have resulted in unprecedented damage to life, property and the environment. In the last year, swathes of fires wreaked havoc across California, Arizona and Oregon, as well as abroad in Brazil and, most recently, Australia. According to global environmental experts, this is just the beginning, as fires will only intensify in size and last longer. If what the experts predict is accurate, we must ask ourselves: Are we ready for what’s to come?
I started with the fire service at the early age of 17 when I joined a local volunteer fire department. Since then, I have sacrificed blood, sweat and tears for the profession and developed a profound respect for the brave, selfless individuals who’ve heroically dedicated themselves to helping others. My experience in the fire service and passion for policy drive my desire to find ways to change firefighting to meet the evolving risks. Here are three steps that state and local officials can take to improve their responses to fires.
1. Embrace advances in technology and make these tools available across the industry. Technology allows officers to perform functions that were once impossible. For example, thermal imaging cameras provide officers visibility in structures filled with dense smoke, allowing them to search for victims. Drones equipped with these devices can cover vast grounds to locate potential hot spots susceptible to reignite in areas affected by brush or wildfires. Data processing and mapping tools like GPS tracking can conduct trend analysis to identify high-volume call areas and reduce response times through strategic positioning of fire and EMS units. Embracing these technological advances has the potential to make a profound impact and improve the way we respond to all types of fires.
2. Invest more in disaster prevention and risk reduction measures. Since Benjamin Franklin founded the first “bucket brigade” of Philadelphia volunteers in the 1730s, the U.S. approach to fires has primarily been reactionary. Fast forward to today where the majority of the firefighting force remain volunteers who operate under tight budgets and with limited resources to reduce fire risk. This paradigm needs to evolve. Directing more investments through grants, subsidies or other forms of incentives will help communities more proactively implement prevention measures that will better position communities to withstand disasters, reduce long-term costs and save lives. Specifically, these investments can jumpstart effective, proven mitigation activities such as enhancing building code enforcement, creating evacuation plans, offering community education courses, developing forward thinking zoning regulations and conducting public awareness campaigns to encourage the public to maintain their own fire safety systems.
3. Fire departments must become more diverse. The 2017 National Fire Protection Association Fire Department Profile revealed that 96% of U.S. firefighters are men and 82% are white. This is significantly more homogenous than similar professions in law enforcement or the military. As the demands of the fire service are expected to grow along with global climate change, it is imperative that fire departments embrace more racial and gender diversity to expose the service to more ideas and backgrounds to tackle new catastrophes. By diversifying our ranks, the fire service will have a greater understanding of the communities they serve and foster more community trust and better overall interactions, particularly during times of extreme adversity.
The fire service is underprepared, underfunded and understaffed to face an era of extreme fires and natural disasters. Embracing advances in technology, investing in preventative measures and instituting more diversity will, no doubt, help steer states and localities on a path to success. These measures are a great start for states and localities, but there is still much work to do. We must continue to push our government leaders to advocate for increased focus pre-disaster, resource allocation and innovation to emergency response as a whole.
Austin Cruz is a firefighter in Texas and graduate research assistant at The LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas.
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