Firemen at scene of building in flames

The evolving challenges of modern fire departments

Media outlets are beginning to pay attention to the way fire departments have changed in the past few decades. We talked with Ned Pettus, consultant at Baker Tilly and former fire chief in Columbus, Ohio about how and why fire departments are changing.

Across the country, 70 to 80 percent of calls for service are EMS (emergency medical services). There is a huge transition from fire departments just taking fire runs to what we call all-hazard response. They have to be trained to respond to hazardous materials calls, cave-ins, water rescues, terrorist attacks and especially EMS. Organizations need to be proactive rather than reactive. They have to continuously train and be prepared to handle what you hope never happens.

Depending on the community, there may be large industrial complexes, high-rise buildings, large shopping centers, and you have to be prepared to respond to the level of risk. You determine all the risks and then determine whether you have the resources to address those risks. You may never have a high-rise fire, but residents expect their fire department to be able to respond to one. There are more complexities that come up: natural disasters, train derailments, large-scale evacuations. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

In the performance-review programs we do, we’re noticing issues that have to do with discipline, budgetary issues, staffing, efficiency and effectiveness. Departments are looking at opportunities to collaborate more, mutual-aid agreements and ways to reduce redundancy. Fire departments are having to do more with less and at the same time adapt to new technology and advances in communication and operations. The community wants to feel safe, and sometimes it’s a matter of perception as to whether the fire department is using its resources the way the community expects.

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