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We are here for you

Not long after we rang in the new year, we began hearing about a deadly disease outbreak in Wuhan, China.  Within a short timeframe, the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) spread throughout the United States; it is impacting our communities in an unprecedented way.  To slow the spread of COVID-19, Minnesotans are faced with a new reality of social distancing, a statewide stay at home order, and the closing of restaurants and bars.  Our public health system is preparing to handle a massive influx of patients; we are also faced with the sad reality that some may not be able to recover.

For Minnesota first responders, there is no such thing as telecommuting or working from home.  Every definition of an essential employee includes those on the front-line of this national crisis: firefighters, police officers, EMTs, doctors, nurses, and public health professionals.  We took an oath to serve: our communities need us now more than ever.

The health, safety, and welfare of Minnesota firefighters is our top priority.  In response to the pandemic, the MSFCA created the COVID-19 Task Force.  The Task Force is comprised of senior fire service leaders that are working to support the Minnesota fire service during this crisis.  This includes sharing current protocols, guidelines, tools, and resources on a new website at www.MSFCA.org/COVID19, responding to your questions sent to COVID19@MSFCA.org, and coordinating directly with the Department of Public Safety and the State Fire Marshal Division.  The MSFCA is devoting its attention to making sure the Minnesota fire service has the information, resources, and support during this difficult time.

MSFCA COVID-19 Task Force

During good times and bad, I know that the dedication, commitment, and passion of the Minnesota fire service is unwavering.  While the strategies and tactics to combat this crisis are not necessarily covered in a firefighting textbook, the fire service has a robust foundation of knowledge, experience, and training to confront this crisis head-on.

Above all, the women and men on the front-line need leadership.  They are looking to you to lead through this crisis.

It is my personal commitment to you that the MSFCA will continue to support the Minnesota fire service today, tomorrow, and long into the future.

My sincere thanks and appreciation to you for your support and trust in the MSFCA.  This Association exists because of the incredible support of our members, committees, vendors, staff, and supporters.  We truly can’t do this without you.

Please do not hesitate to call me directly at 763-286-1288, email President@MSFCA.org, or contact the COVID-19 Task Force at COVID19@MSFCA.org. We are here for you.

My best wishes to you, your department, and your family.

Note: this article appeared in the Spring issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week

Every year across the nation, public safety telecommunicators answer over 240 million calls. Public safety dispatchers are everyday heroes, answering the call and providing responders with critical information.

On behalf of the 22,000+ Minnesota firefighters, I want to extend a heartfelt thanks to dispatchers across our state and country. You are truly the lifeline on the other end of the call.

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is April 12-18, 2020.

Have We Forgotten?

18 years ago, planes came crashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania.  Hijackers killed more than 2,900 people that morning and caused billions in dollars’ in damage to property, infrastructure, and our economy.  In the fire service community, we lost 343 FDNY brothers in this heinous attack. 

Yearly anniversaries of that tragic day bring public events, remembrance ceremonies, and TV documentaries covering the rescue and recovery efforts. As life returned to a new normal and the minutes turned into hours, then days, then months, and years, a common phrase emerged: “never forget.”

Sadly, we have forgotten.

We’ve forgotten the united sense of pride and patriotism that emerged on September 12, 2001.  We have forgotten the broad call to action for public service.   We’ve forgotten the commitment and focus to strengthening local communities’ ability to respond to Mrs. Smith’s emergency.  We’ve largely forgotten the sacrifices made that day and the war that rescuers continue to battle to receive healthcare and benefits for rushing into danger as others run out (Jon Stewart’s public outlash brought much needed attention to a crisis facing deathly ill first responders). 

Immediately after September 11, 2001, I witnessed first-hand a different Country.  We had collectively experienced a profound loss together.  Whether you were living in New York, Minnesota, or California, the Country became united.  We were far less concerned or focused on our differences but were rather bonded by the commonalities that make us proud to be Americans.  We cried, laughed, struggled, and strengthened together. 

At the firehouse, we focused our attention on being the best that we could possibly be.  Our doors were flooded with applicants of people looking to serve their community.  When the pager went off, cars practically drove off into the woods as drivers cleared the path to allow police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances to pass.  We rushed to Mrs. Smith’s house where we received a warm greeting (and some calls I fondly remember, freshly baked cookies and a glass of milk).

There will now be people joining your ranks that were born after September 11, 2001.  They will learn about the event through first or third-hand experiences, history lessons, media outlets, social media, and the annual anniversary in which we pledge to “never forget.”  When they hear a PASS device alarming, they won’t connect it to the hundreds of alarms sounding at Ground Zero where our brothers were killed.  The may not understand the significance of the 343 stickers that we proudly display on our trucks, helmets, and lockers.

Never forgetting means keeping the passion, commitment, and determination that existed on September 12, 2001, alive.  We have a responsibility to those we serve to deliver on the promise we made 18 years ago.

Bench-marking Your Fire Department’s Service Levels

As cities across the state and country begin discussions on the upcoming year’s budget and set their maximum tax levy, fire chiefs’ are putting the finishing touches on their requests.  If you’re like me, it always seems like the ink isn’t quite dry on the last budget before you begin work on the next.  Whether your Department’s budget is $10,000 or $10 million, the devil is always in the details; you work hard to ensure that you accurately plan for the upcoming year while remaining conscientious of the tax-payer dollar (ranking 44th in the Country on per-capita spending on the fire service is pretty conscientious if you ask me).

In many department budget requests, you’ll find colorful graphs and charts of historical data sets like the number of calls, average turnout of personnel, response times, and dollar losses.  There might be anticipated increases in responses, inspections, and public contacts.  Yet, despite the 20 pages of fancy pie charts and diagrams, and the confidence that you “told the right story” to justify your budget, you’re left wondering how many additional raffle tickets need to be sold or pancakes eaten to afford the essential items your Department needs.

So, how do you tell the right story to get the funding you desperately need?

You need to have a plan on where you want to go.  In other words, what measurable goals is your organization working to maintain or achieve.  Too often, we only use data sets that tell the reader about the work we are doing (“we went on X number of calls”) and what we anticipate doing in the future (“we expect to respond to Y additional calls next year”).  Unfortunately, these individual datasets lack any reference to any measurable outcome that helps tell your story (aside from the obvious that you’re getting “busier”).

Take for instance fire loss.  Research has shown that keeping a structure fire to the room of origin greatly increases the chance of survival and significantly decreases the damage to the structure.  After a collaborative community-involved strategic planning process, the Brooklyn Park Fire Department, for instance, established a benchmark of containing structure fires to the room of origin for 80% of all incidents.  To achieve this requires a multi-pronged approach of education, prevention, mitigation, and response.  From a response perspective, additional benchmarks were set for call processing times (2 minutes, 90 percent of the time), a rapid turnout time (2 minutes, 90 percent of the time) and strategically located stations to provide a quick drive time.  Note the 90th percentile is a more common unit of measurement for emergency service delivery although most records system report averages.

As you begin to look to the upcoming year, I encourage you to find measurable outputs that you can use to establish strategic benchmarks for your Department.  Work collaboratively with your internal and external (i.e. community) stakeholders to set realistic, achievable, and actionable benchmarks.  Utilize NFPA standards, accreditation models, and industry best practices.  Be honest and let the data and your benchmarking tell the true story.

Note: this article appeared in the September issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Having a Real Discussion on Recruitment and Retention

Shortly after becoming a volunteer firefighter, I attended an all-day class on volunteer recruitment and retention at the Connecticut Fire Academy’s June School fire training program. This all-day seminar shed light on the mounting challenges facing America’s fire service on attracting talent and keeping it. The statistics were alarming and departments across the country were sharing similar stories about declining volunteerism, increased service demands, and the challenges of managing a modern-era fire service. At the conclusion of the class, I was provided a book titled, “Retention and Recruitment in the Volunteer Fire Service: Problems and Solutions.” As a young, newly-anointed firefighter, I was eager to attack this problem head-on. After all, we are the fire service and we can solve any problem! The year was 1998.

Fast-forward over twenty years and many of the discussions are still occurring around the firehouse apparatus floor. Sadly, in some cases, department’s have closed their doors after succumbing to the challenges of recruitment and retention. I’ve talked to many chiefs that are beyond struggling to recruit firefighters. Recent data released by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) estimated that there was a significant drop in volunteer firefighters in recent years. Kevin Quinn, Chair of the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) states, “We know many volunteer fire departments are struggling to maintain adequate staffing. However, the scale of the loss of volunteer firefighters estimated in this report is really disturbing and something that we need to work as a community and a nation to address.”

The volunteer fire/EMS/rescue service in North America is in a major and measurable crisis…not “gonna be in a crisis”…it IS in a crisis and few want to genuinely fix the problem. Now, when we say fix the problem, I mean fix it so when whoever dials 9-1-1, they hear fire apparatus sirens a few minutes later.

Chief Billy Goldfeder, The Secret List – The Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker are not Coming

We are a problem-solving oriented culture; after-all, we often get called to problems that no one else was able to resolve. I can honestly say that America’s fire service has tried probably every possible strategy to address this problem and it still isn’t getting any better; in fact, the data shows it’s getting worse. While there are exceptions and great success stories about department’s that aren’t experiencing these challenges, by-and-large, it remains one of the most significant challenges facing the fire service across the country and in our own state.

As the data suggests, the past practices and models of the fire service are not working, specifically with regard to recruitment and retention. This deserves greater discussion with fire service leadership and a broader investment into fire protection across the state with the hope of achieving a better ranking than 45th in per-capita spending in one of the most essential public services.

The MSFCA, along with our fire service partners, have been actively engaged on statewide initiatives to help local departments – including cities – on fire service issues. For example, fire protection districts were introduced as a measure to help two or more units of government in creating a more effective and efficient fire service model. A fire protection district would allow for greater flexibility in meeting the long-term public safety needs of a community while still maintaining local control. This is one of many examples in which the MSFCA along with our fire service partners are working collaboratively to help the entire Minnesota fire service.

Despite our best efforts to enact positive legislative change at the state level, we continue to struggle to advance initiatives such as this because many do not see our current system as needing repair or changes.

I am incredibly thankful and appreciative to the working groups, committees, and task forces that have been advocating for the Minnesota fire service. This is a broad representation of fire service stakeholders. As President of the MSFCA, I have full trust and faith in our appointed representatives in the great work they are doing and for carrying our initiatives forward.

I encourage every MSFCA member to get involved – your voice matters. I realize that many chiefs may find themselves in a difficult position to speak on the challenges their communities face. If you want to share your story, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at President@MSFCA.org. We need to hear from you!

Note: this article appeared in the Spring issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Additional commentary attrituted to Chief Billy Goldfeder at FireFirefighterCloseCalls.com, home of the Secret List.

Is there a crisis in the fire service?

Despite the federal government shutdown, the argument over funding a wall along the southern border of the United States, and the persistent political commentary filling Twitter, we remain focused on the issues and challenges facing the Minnesota fire service at home.  As the next legislative session kicks into gear, our legislative committee, MnFAC, and our government relations vendor will be actively working to ensure that we – the Minnesota fire service – have a voice at the state level.  In many respects, our work is truly just beginning.

I had the recent opportunity to attend one of the MnFIRE training sessions.  The two-hour program was incredibly valuable as we look to addressing the issues our firefighters face every day.  Prior to the start of the class, my colleagues and I at Brooklyn Park fire started a discussion about health and wellness at the kitchen table.  The training expanded upon and reinforced the discussion we just had while sipping a cup of coffee.  We need to take better care of ourselves, each other, and the very institution we have taken an oath to serve.

It’s no secret that Minnesota ranks 45th in per-capita spending on the fire service.  This statistic is much more than just a sound-bite.  When we look around the state, we can clearly see the impact that the lack of funding has on one the most essential core functions of government.  Fire departments lack the necessary resources (including personnel) to adequately respond to calls and continue to struggle to meet the growing demands of the communities they serve.  Pull-tabs, pancake breakfasts, fish-fries, and other fundraisers are often the only major source of financial capital to fund essential services in many departments.  We are learning that the hazards of the profession are far greater than just responding to call.  We need additional resources to properly take care of our most valuable asset: our people. 

In Pennsylvania, State Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny) is quoted as saying that the state is in a crisis after a 2018 published report highlighted significant problems in the state’s fire/emergency services.  Dwindling numbers of volunteers and a lack of resources paint a striking similar picture to that facing many Minnesota departments.  The question is truly, “how do we fix this” and who is going to take the lead?

To start, we need to be a united Minnesota fire service and committed to solving our problems together.  While every community is arguably unique, we still share many of the same problems and we need to be open, honest, and transparent in telling our story – including the challenges we face.  We need to find champions – elected representatives at all levels – that are willing to help the fire service in addressing the real problems that exist across the state.  Many communities cannot face or fix these problems alone and need the broader support.

At some point in the future, all of us will find ourselves reflecting at the end of our fire service career.  What was the impact that we made?  Let 2019 be the year that we truly focus on making significant, positive changes throughout the Minnesota fire service.  To find out how you can help, contact our Legislative Committee at legislative@MSFCA.org.

Note: this article appeared in the February/March issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Advancing the Fire Service Mission

The January/February edition of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Magazine is dedicated to discussing many of the emerging issues facing the Minnesota fire service specifically health, safety, wellness, and legislative advocacy.  There is no denying that the fire service we know today is very different then in years past.  While many of the challenges are not necessarily new, we have become more educated and aware of the significant issues that face our first responders.  As leaders, we are leveraging the use of data and best practices to implement sound policies to help keep our people safe.

NFPA 3000 is a comprehensive standard for responding to Active Shooter/Hostile Event incidents. For additional information, visit NFPA.

A retired fire chief recently stopped by my office and noticed the ballistic helmet and vest sitting on the counter.  When I started my career in 1998, ballistic gear was not part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) list for firefighters; to be frank it wasn’t even on my list of wildest possibilities.  Fast forward twenty-years and I am purchasing active shooter/hostile event equipment to ensure that our firefighters are properly equipped for responding to high-risk incidents.  Our firefighters are cross training with law-enforcement on how to jointly respond to active shooter, post-blast, and other hostile incidents.  Our mission of saving lives guides our decision to invest in the training and equipment to keep our people safe so that we can better respond to the myriad types of calls our firefighters are now facing.

Cancer, mental health, and cardiac disease have taken center stage on the growing list of issues facing the fire service.  Through evidence-based research and data, we are learning that the risks associated with our profession are far greater than what I was taught in my orientation program in the 1990’s.  Minnesota is not alone on sounding the alarm on recruitment and retention; a recent study in Pennsylvania calls it a “public safety crisis” and their state law makers are calling for action to address the findings of the study.

As we prepare for the upcoming legislative session, it is important that the Minnesota fire service actively works to educate our elected officials on the real issues and concerns we face on a daily basis.  I am excited to welcome our new government relations firm, Lockridge Grindal Nauen, to our team.

On a national level, I encourage every chief to review the final draft of OSHA standard 1910.156, “Emergency Responder Preparedness Program Standard.”  Formally the Fire brigades standard, the new language has sweeping changes to federal law that govern fire department operations.  It is critical that fire chiefs become familiar with the proposed changes and monitor the progress as the new language is ultimately adopted.

My best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

Note: this article appeared in the January/February issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

An important day in September

Discreetly tucked in along with conveyor belts, digital signage, and thousands of people traversing the baggage claim area hurrying to their final destination as loudspeakers screamed, “Mr. Smith, please report to Gate 22” at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport was a statue of great significance and honor.  In 2011, a statewide initiative was launched to move the 19,000 pound monolith which measures 22’x28’.  The statue paying tribute to Minnesota fallen firefighters would find its new home on the sacred memorial grounds of the Capitol.

In front of thousands of family, friends, uniformed firefighters, dignitaries, and media, the 6,000+ square foot memorial was dedicated on September 30, 2012.  That day marked the beginning of an annual event dedicated to honoring the hundreds of Minnesota firefighters that have died in the line-of-duty (LODD).  The Governor, who attends each year, proclaims the day as Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial Day and orders all flags lowered to half-staff.

The 2018 Minnesota Fallen Firefighters Memorial Service will be held on Sunday, September 30.  The Minnesota Fire Service Foundation, the non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve the memory of all of the Minnesota firefighters who have lost their lives in the line-of-duty, is well into the planning phases for this year’s event.

It is important that we, the Minnesota fire service, make this event a priority.  Firefighter attendance has been steadily dropping over the past few years.  What once was a sea of blue, white, and red uniforms standing at attention is now open green space.  Chairs are empty.  Many of the same familiar faces are regular attendees and are also working behind the scenes to make sure the ceremony is flawless.

Lieutenant Spencer.  Firefighter Brotherton.  Firefighter Jackson.  Firefighter Lucey.  Firefighter (Lieutenant) Lyons.  Firefighter McGuirk.  These are the names of the six Worcester firefighters that were killed at the December 3, 1999, Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. fire in Massachusetts.  At nineteen, this was the first LODD funeral I attended and it left a huge impact on my personal and professional life.  It defined the meaning of brotherhood and cemented my commitment to never forget.

The last Sunday in September is dedicated to honoring the sacrifice and paying tribute to our comrades that have died.  It is about supporting the families of those that have lost a loved one and grieve each and every day.  Sadly, two names will be added this year: Captain Jeff Vollmer (Mayer Fire Department) and Firefighter Timothy Royce (Mapleton Community Fire Department).

The Minnesota fire service is over 21,000 strong.  I urge each and every one of us to attend this year’s Memorial Service to show the entire state that we have not forgotten.  Add it to your calendars. Get involved.  For more information, please visit www.mnfireservicefoundation.org.

Note: this article appeared in the July/August issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

Seniority is much more than just a number

Undoubtedly, the longest wait I ever experienced was for my 18th birthday.  The months, days, and even hours leading up to this moment was excruciating; I wished time would speed-up.  This date was far more important than getting my driver’s license or being able to legally purchase alcohol a few years later.  It was the first right-of-passage to become a volunteer firefighter.

Apparently, the fast-forward button was pressed that day.  Two-decades later, I am finding myself looking back and wondering where the time has gone, not to mention most of my hair.  As I began preparing for our region’s Fire Academy graduation, I found myself reflecting on a profession that has been the better part of my life.

My first few years as a volunteer firefighter was spent learning as much as I could about the profession.  My parents would not be shocked to learn that I spent much more time reading the Essentials of Firefighting than I did all of my school textbooks combined.  The classroom and practical learning opportunities gave me a great foundation.  I also watched and listened to my elders as they passed down their knowledge.  Story telling was much more than just passing time.  My brain was being filled with valuable lessons-learned from the past.  The firehouse kitchen or the first-floor day room became a second home.  There could never be enough training opportunities.  The pager sounding meant another opportunity to learn something new.

Great leadership early in my career instilled into me a strong sense of duty, pride, and honor in everything we do as a firefighter. Taking pride in our equipment ensured we were always ready to respond. We are proud of what we do. What a better way to showcase what we do and how we do it then to put everything on display in front of the firehouse for everyone to see.

The 20+ year veterans of the fire service when I became a volunteer firefighter were some of the most influential mentors I have had in my career.  Experience developed confidence and one’s ability to conquer the most challenging of situations with skill.  The best mentors knew when to lead from the front and when to step back to be the coach.  The fire department became a large part of my family.  My mom’s name might just as well have been on the roster; she cared so much about the fire department as they did about her.

As we welcome the next generation of firefighters into our departments, we – the “veterans” of the fire service – have an obligation to pass down our knowledge.  The evolving nature of our profession also demands that we are constantly refreshed on new strategies and tactics to do our job safer and more effectively.  Seniority is not a hall pass to slide into retirement.

In twenty years, who will today’s recruits remember as being their best mentors?  It all starts with us.

Note: this article appeared in the May/June issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!

MSFCA Fire Officers Schools help build your professional networks

I had the great opportunity to be a guest instructor at this year’s MSFCA Fire Officers School in Alexandria and the first annual Fire Officers and Instructors School in Duluth. It is fitting that our organization’s primary mission reflects my passion in developing current and future leaders.

I commend everyone that made this year’s programs a success. Both schools had great attendance; registrations for Duluth neared the 300 mark. Our committee members and staff deserve special recognition and appreciation for their work leading up to and behind the scenes in coordinating instructors, networking events, and focusing on every last detail with precision. Thanks to our vendors for supporting our educational programs and showcasing the newest and best products on the market. Alexandria and Duluth were incredible host cities and I look forward to visiting both again soon.

As an instructor, I am always learning from the attendees in my each of my classes and enjoy the interaction we have on discussing issues impacting the fire service. As you may recall, my last article talked about the value of understanding the unique personality profiles of the members of your team and how you, as a leader, can use this information to build a successful team. To start of the class, we used the PACE® Palette to understand our individual personality types and everyone else in the class. With this information handy, we were able to apply our filters to better understand some of the simple and complex issues we face as organizational leaders. As the class progressed, we dove a little deeper into discussing the modern-era challenges we face in our organizations and collectively as a fire service. To be honest, I wish we had more time as we only scratched the surface.

We all acknowledge that some of the problems we encounter are easily solved whereas others are more complex. In some cases, we are faced with an ethical dilemma in which there is truly no easy “right” or correct answer and we are perplexed as to what to do next. In these cases, don’t be afraid or hesitant to reach out to a colleague for advice. The fire officers and instructor schools are excellent opportunities to network; add as many names and numbers to your phone to build upon your professional network.

I look forward to seeing you at the fall conference in St. Paul and at other MSFCA sponsored events over the next year.

Note: this article appeared in the April digital issue of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association magazine. For other articles by leading fire service professionals, join the MSFCA today! Magazine memberships are available!