Chasing change

Fire and law enforcement officials are addressing their unique challenges.

As local government leaders assess how their operations must change in the years ahead, no area has drawn their attention more than the emergency services they provide the community.

And few areas have seen more change, and anticipate more change, than police and fire services.
In both disciplines, officials are developing new responses to the challenges they face through extensive training, emerging technologies and a fundamental rethinking of their traditional roles and responsibilities. From this reassessment, leaders are forging new paths that will sustain the professions through the remainder of this decade and beyond.

In the following article, leaders of the police and fire professions discuss how they are approaching the issues that they will be facing in the future.

Twice a year, Anthony McDowell, the fire chief for Henrico County, Va., faces a potential hazard that rivals probably any single fire in the Richmond area. On those weekends, between 90,000 and 100,000 people file into Richmond International Raceway to watch NASCAR racing events.

Henrico’s police and fire departments function under a single unified command structure that tears down the barriers between traditional roles in crowd management and refocuses roles and responsibilities among participating departments to meet the surge in demand. 
“It’s revolutionary,” McDowell says. “There is one action plan and everyone is on the same page.

People step out of their professional disciplines so that the management of the weekend flows smoothly. At the same time, they build lasting relationships.”

Though the U.S. Fire Administration estimates that the number of fires in the United States has fallen by almost 20 percent, from almost 1.7 million to 1.4 million since 2002 through 2011, the roles and responsibilities of fire departments in public safety have expanded.

“Fire services have become the all-hazards organizations rather than just fighting fires,” says Mark Light, the executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), a Fairfax, Va.-based representative of the fire chief profession. “Emergency medical services (EMS), emergency management, responding to terrorism — It’s an overall responsibility to keep people safe.”

Like McDowell, chiefs all over the country are developing new procedures and policies to accommodate the growing reliance on their fire departments for a variety of services that were previously handled by other divisions, or often, simply unmet. For example, in Mesa, Ariz., specially trained EMS personnel are helping to reduce medical system costs by undertaking behavioral health interventions and even post-surgery patient follow-ups.

Using social media and existing data

In Oklahoma City, Okla., Fire Chief Keith Bryant, who is the current president of the IAFC, foresees that departments will pay increasing attention on communications in all its varied forms. “Social media is more critical and the department has to adapt to that environment,” he says. “We have to be more skilled, understand how to use it.”

As an example, Bryant says the department could use social media to exchange information with the community in the event of a major fire or other disaster. “The old model would be to have a public information briefing,” he says. “But we could cut the time by now having an exchange on Facebook and Twitter. The assumption is that there will be a discussion and, unless we participate, a lot of misinformation would be going out, causing problems.”

Instead of shying away from joining the online conversation, the department must better understand how to be part of the streams that are crisscrossing the Internet. “How do we manage the information out to the community?” he asks. “We have to do our best to make sure it’s accurate.”

As part of this effort, the department provides regular information streams on the Internet or social media or both every day, including tips on fire safety. “That way people know that they can get information in case of a major event,” he says.

Near Beaverton, Ore., Fire Chief Mike Duyck of the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue, is digging deep into the department’s data to better understand how its services have been used in the past and how they can be deployed better in the future.

In recent discussions on whether to renovate a fire station or build a new facility in a different location, the department used extensive data to illustrate how the service area had shifted in the decades since the original station was built. Officials could also show how the changing of location would not affect service for the residents, who were understandably concerned about the change, he says.

“It helped us to show the community that the facility should be in the right spot, not just where it was built 30 or 40 years ago,” he says. “We used maps to show the problem. People in the community get it. The data analysis shows they are covered. They appreciate that local government is trying for more efficient use of their tax dollars.”

Technology is also playing a large role in the delivery of services to the community, Duyck says. Now, EMS units can transmit heart monitor readings directly from the scene of a call rather than waiting until the patient is transported to the hospital. With special training, the EMS technicians can perform life-saving procedures that previously had to wait until the emergency room.

“They are able to remove the clot and restore blood flow,” he says, referring to the cause of heart attacks. “Rapid response and rapid treatment. They can consult with a cardiologist and they haven’t even left the scene. People are surviving with no deficit. It’s phenomenal.”

With all of these responsibilities and required skills, leaders of fire departments are focused on the need for extensive and continuous training for their staff. These new tasks might include responding to a spill of hazardous materials, or even an act of terrorism. Moreover, though the number of fires has been reduced, McDowell notes, the intensity of fires is greater than before because of new construction materials, which also require extensive training.

“Today, firefighters are expected to receive an education in construction as well as EMS training,” he says. “It’s a big training challenge.”

Another challenge for the future is the need to recruit a new cohort of firefighters to replace the group that was hired in the 1980s and 1990s, who are now preparing to retire, IAFC’s Light says.

“There’s a tremendous loss of seasoned firefighters,” he says. “There’s going to be high turnover, a massive loss of institutional knowledge.”

Amid all of these difficult assignments, the fire profession also faces the same economic constraints facing the local government. Managing the department has become much more difficult than just finding people to fight fires.

“The fire chief has to become more of a business accountant and raise the level of business acumen,” Bryant says. “There has to be an understanding of the political climate and how it impacts major departments. It’s necessary in today’s world, and it will continue to be the case.”

Police: Building relationships before the incident

In Apex, N.C., Police Chief John Letteney has created a citizen police academy so residents can learn how police officers work and help others in the community understand the issues they face. He’s also instituted a program, called Coffee with a Cop, so citizens and police can sit down and ask questions of each other at a coffee shop.

While incidents flared across the nation in the last half of 2014 and the early months of 2015, Letteney instituted these outreach efforts long before these issues entered the living rooms of people across the country.

“We wanted to have a conversation in a positive sense before a crisis occurs,” he says. “Relations are a two-way street. We need to be open to the daily expectations and needs of the community.”

Letteney is the general chair of the State Associations of Chiefs of Police (SACOP). The group, which represents police chiefs in coordination with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), sat at the table with chiefs and representatives of a broad spectrum of American society as part of the task force that President Barack Obama created in December 2014 to look at 21st century policing. The IACP had requested such a forum for over 20 years.

“We are pleased that the task force realized that this is a complicated topic,” Letteney says. “What happens in law enforcement is influenced by other factors outside the control of the police. It’s a larger picture than just in law enforcement.”

Jim Baker, IACP’s director of law enforcement operation and support, says that the interim report, which was still being finalized in April, recognized that law enforcement faces many new issues.

“The nature of policing has changed,” he says. “We have drawn a line in the sand. There needs to be a change from a warrior mentality to a role as community guardian.”

Letteney also argues that while policing needs to change, the new policies should not be overly influenced by highly publicized incidents, which he says are the exception. “There are problems in some places,” he acknowledges. “But the vast majority of law enforcement agencies are staffed with professionals. They try hard to be part of the community. Painting all agencies with a broad brush is not a true picture.”

Good law enforcement requires joint effort

The report looked forward to policing in the coming decades, with a particular focus on building trust and legitimacy, policy and oversight, technology and social media, community policing and crime reduction, training and education and officer wellness and safety.

Building trust is essential when looking into an incident, and the public needs to be aware that investigations take time, Letteney says. “People rush to assumptions, before the facts are known,” he says. “There is not a tolerance for process to come to the logical conclusion.”

But he points to his own civilian police academy as a means of building a reservoir of good will that can be tapped when needed, giving officers the time to unearth all of the facts. “Law enforcement has to be part of the community,” he says. “The time to build relationships is before the incident.”

A wider understanding of the joint responsibility for law enforcement between the community and the police is essential, he says. “The police are the people and the people are the police,” he says. “Law enforcement is not solely responsible for public safety. There is a community role in public safety. It creates a better opportunity to reduce crime.”

A good set of policies is also essential for both the community and law enforcement officers, he says. “We need to train people to a standard, but if there is not a good policy, there is nothing to train to. What is the standard for use of force? What is reasonable and what is excessive? There needs to be proper policing and proper oversight. We need to establish best practices.”

Through better use of new technologies and social media, police departments must become part of the conversation, Letteney says. “We have to adapt to how the community consumes information. We can no longer just put an ad in a newspaper. We would miss a major part of the community. We need to put out information through our website, Facebook and Twitter.”

For example, he says that by following Twitter, police can take “a pulse of the community.” “If we don’t use these social media, we are missing a huge opportunity to build our relationships and get our information out.”

Body cameras raise new set of issues

At the same time, new technologies, like adding body-worn cameras, raise significant issues in terms of cost and privacy. For example, the amount of digital information needed to be stored from a continuously running body camera would be enormous, and dwarfs the data that police capture through car cameras, which he says are very effective.

In addition, communities must establish policies on how long the data must be retained. And issues of privacy are raised, especially in common domestic situations. If the policeman turns off the camera in a domestic call to preserve privacy, he asks, what happens if the situation escalates while the camera is turned off? “We shouldn’t establish a cookie cutter approach.”

Training is also an essential component of changes in the coming decades. Law enforcement should revisit the entire picture of policing, from recruiting criteria to academy training to continuing education. He would like to see more emphasis on college-level in-service training, which helps both the active officer and the students, who gain a better understanding of the real world where the officer must operate.

Finally, the law enforcement community must focus on the wellness and safety of police officers, Letteney says, noting that 1,500 police officers have been killed in the line of duty in the past 10 years. The community must pay attention to everything from driving skills training to prevention of officer suicide and heart attacks. “The stress of the job takes a toll on the body. We have to look at the police officer from the human perspective.”

While highly publicized incidents color how police relations are perceived, he contends that, generally, relations between the community and the police are positive in most areas. “The vast majority of the community are good, decent, hardworking folk,” he says, “and the police are there to keep them safe.”  

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