Leadership Forum: December 2015
By Bill Boyes
In my past few columns I have focused on career development and the importance of post-secondary education for aspiring and current senior officers.
This month I am deviating from the field of career development to discuss an important, yet relatively unknown project that is altering fire service culture and operations. The IAFC’s Firefighter Safety Through Advanced Research (FSTAR) project reviews scientific research to bridge the gap between academia and the fire service.
FSTAR is composed of fire-service stakeholders such as researchers, scientists and chief officers with ties to organizations such as NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the United States Department of Defense, and various state agencies and local fire departments. The project has developed a repository of fire- and emergency-service related research that is being broken down into manageable and easy-to-understand fact sheets and training aids.
Fire departments must ensure they are informed of and implement the newest findings in the fire-service field. Ignoring innovative research or relying on past practices will do little to progress the industry. The need for evidence-based decision making is nothing new for senior officers; however, we need to better understand the data we use and ensure it is valid, reliable, derived using a sound methodology and if possible, subject to rigorous peer-reviewed scrutiny.
Many members of the Canadian fire service are probably unaware of FSTAR given its United States roots and funding through FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program. As the only international member working on the project, I attended the first meeting in Philadelphia to witness some of the new NIST research and discuss the strategic direction of this new initiative.
The working group was created originally to help decipher the plethora of new fire-service research from NIST, Underwriters Laboratories (UL), and a number of other academic institutions. The focus was primarily on firefighting strategy and tactics along with a few health and safety topics. It quickly became apparent that while there is significant fire-service research being undertaken, the bulk of the fire service is unaware of it, or incapable of applying it, due to the method by which scientific and academic research is disseminated.
The academia-to-practitioner gap exists in many professions. It is unfair to expect frontline firefighters, officers or chiefs to have the ability and/or time to distill key takeaways from a piece of detailed scientific research and implement the findings, all the while staying current with the more recent published articles.
FSTAR realized the need to examine a wider range of the scholarly discourse on topics such as firefighter wellness and administrative leadership. While we cannot understate the importance of effective, efficient and safe fire fighting, the profession is faced with major challenges including how to educate our citizens, focus on fire prevention, proactively deal with occupational exposures and stress injuries and lead a public sector organization. Aspiring chief officers need to embrace formal post-secondary education to ensure they have the skills necessary to respond to the challenges within an environment inundated with information and change.
Two prominent examples in Houston and Boston highlight the impact of FSTAR and academic research. In Boston, two firefighters recently lost their lives and in Houston, there have been 14 line-of-duty deaths since 2000. Both departments have embraced research to affect cultural and tactical changes in their operations. Change within the fire service can be glacial at times and implementing revolutionary changes to tactics that have become ingrained over the decades is difficult. The leadership of both departments witnessed the findings of the new firefighting research and committed to educating and training all firefighters and officers on a new approach underpinned by research – not consensus, experience or opinion. When you take into account the history and tradition of these large, urban fire departments, the speed at which they changed their firefighting strategy and tactics according to NIST and UL findings is incredible.
It is not surprising that peer-reviewed research is not widely read by many of us in the fire service given its complexity; it is often difficult to interpret findings, and they may or may not be applicable to the specific situation that a department is facing. While FSTAR is in the very early stages, I encourage you all to visit the website – www.fstaresearch.org – to read the featured studies and sign up for the monthly newsletter. The resources available will continue to grow and you will soon realize there is a wealth of easy-to-understand, credible, peer-reviewed research at your fingertips. Moreover, you can enter the realm of academia in an efficient manner to maximize the impact on your department.
Bill Boyes is the deputy chief for Barrie Fire and Emergency Service in Ontario. He is a PhD candidate in human resources management at York University, which supplements his Master’s degree in public policy and administration and Bachelor’s degree in public management from the University of Guelph. Boyes was recently elected to the NFPA Fire Service Section Executive Board and is a member of the IAFC Firefighter Safety Through Advanced Research working group. Contact him at Bill.Boyes@barrie.ca