Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Quadrennial Homeland Security Review

The Obama Administation, true to its history of using Web 2.0 tools, is looking for feedback on the Quadrennial Homeland Security Review. The conversation will take place in three stages, starting August 3rd. You can check out the website here. Six topics are specifically under review:
  • "Counterterrorism and Domestic Security Management
  • Securing Our Borders
  • Smart and Tough Enforcement of Immigration Laws
  • Preparing for, Responding to, and Recovering from Disasters
  • Homeland Security National Risk Assessment
  • Homeland Security Planning and Capabilities"
I encourage all members of the fire service to make our voices heard in this review. We have too often ceded the high ground on homeland security to the law enforcement community. Indeed, in much (or most) homeland security dialogue at the national level there is more talk of law enforcement and emergency management than response and mitigation.

Let's not let our fire service be left behind. Sign up at that website for updates and participate in the three rounds of dialogue.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Just because we HAVE fancy equipment...*

doesn't mean we HAVE TO USE our fancy equipment. Remember what what Tom Brennan said about a KISS.

*updated because of my embedding FAIL.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Data collection, NFIRS, and peer review

I had an interesting conversation the other day with a friend who spent a couple of years as a casual volunteer firefighter. He knows just enough to identify some issues and needs but not enough to be really well versed in their finer points. The topic turned to the (mostly settled) bunker gear vs. turnout coat/hip boots issue. I've heard, anecdotally, that Boston reported a lower injury rate among crews using turnouts/hip boots, but am unaware of any actual study. My friend asked me what the data say about victim survival rates compared to fire stage and firefighter access (i.e., how deep did they get in there?). I had no answer.

This points up what I believe to be a major failure of the fire service and a stumbling block to ours ever being considered a true profession. Dr. Robert Cherry of Penn State's homeland security grad program teaches that for a field to evolve into a true profession it must have, among other things, peer-reviewed journals. The fire service certainly has some solid trade journals (Fire Engineering, Firehouse, and Fire-Rescue all spring to mind) but no real peer-reviewed journals that are known and distributed nationally. There are some cursory efforts, including from the old West Point of the Fire Service, Oklahoma State University, but have you ever seen a copy? I sure haven't and don't know of anyone who even knows of its existence.

Not only do we lack a sober and earnest collective research discipline, we also lack adequate data collection. Part of that is explainable by the fluidity of the fire scene; how do you even begin to design uniform criteria identifying how deep you went or were able to go or where the victim has crossed the threshold into unsurvivable? NFIRS collects some solid and useful data, but mostly it is useful for prevention and construction efforts. It doesn't really tell us anything about staffing levels or equipment performance/ability. Even if we can't gather this information through NFIRS or some other standardized system we could still encourage solid research and analysis. I am of the opinion that the trade journals we do have are too focused on the task level of our job and not enough on the strategic or technical preparation side. For that sort of discussion you have to go to various blogs and some of the reasonable message boards. But those aren't popular enough and many fire departments are run by chiefs who are scared of the internet, sometimes to the point of having valuable training tools (YouTube!) blocked completely.

How do we have rational and objective discussions about realities, hypotheses, theories, and projections for the future? The answer is that we cannot, we have to make do with arguments from tradition and policy made by anecdote. On some points the sort of solid foundation I'm talking about does exist, but that is rare. The fire service has to evolve to hold place in this information-based world. The Heritage Foundation just slammed the federal grants that are so vital to many departments. The Heritage Foundation is just another mission-oriented think tank, but we lack even that and can't make a counterargument with so much as a bagged study like this.

Read, read, read and explore the blogs, they are our internal evangelists.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

That was anticlimactic

So it seems the swine flu petered out without much death or destruction (though Mexico took it harder). The World Health Organization thinks this will be a long slog, and it is worth noting that the 1918-19 influenza had a little stutter-step false start before it came back in force.

Most people I know are blaming the media. I am not surprised at all by that, because most people claim to hate the media. I will ask you this: how many times have you posted a RIT that did not have to save a downed firefighter? That's active preparation, just like what a lot of us went through in the last couple of weeks.

And now we're all tired of the flu, so I'll move on.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

CDC guidance for call typing and patient assesment

This is a good one to pass along to your calltakers and study in the morning at shift change.

The issue with this flu is not death...

the issue is continuity of operations and the economy. This is not the 1918-19 influenza; it's (apparently, knocking on wood) not going to kill a whole lot of people. But it will make a lot of people in the work force's primary age groups sick, and people with the flu get very sick.

That is what the hype and the scare tactics miss. People probably aren't going to die, but they are going to miss work and school. Offices and schools are already closing in American cities. What do you do with your kids when they can't go to school? What happens to the economy when even a few business start shutting down? John Robb says it better than I ever could.

How big is your department? What would happen if just 10 percent of your workforce had a highly infectious illness that takes its victims completely out of commission for a week or two?

That is why this is (potentially) a big deal. And if it peters out, then it's a great dress rehearsal for The Big One.

Reflexive anti-hype as bad as reflexive media hype

"Remain calm, all is well."

We're at Phase 5 on the World Health Organization's pandemic alert level. What does that mean? "Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short." Things are quickening around the world and especially the United States. Schools around the country are starting to shut down and it won't be long before we start seeing some commercial enterprises lose functionality.

All over the news, newspapers, and news websites we're treated to a constant barrage of images of people in masks and alarming headlines about panics and runs on stores. The press gets a bad rap in situations like this, and often deserves it. Many people have become so inured to the alarmist infotainment thrown out by the 24-hour cable channels that they reflexively and vociferously disbelieve whatever the media says about whatever is going to kill everybody this week.

That has been amply demonstrated in my own city this week as the emergency management coordinator, who is not part of the fire department, has been sending out the official City emails about the swine flu to the employees. Yesterday afternoon he said, among other things, that there was no epidemic and that no one should be alarmed because this was the same as any other flu. I believe that all his emails/memoranda to this point have specifically said the media is just trying to scare people and that we and our families should ignore them.

This is neither helpful nor factually correct. We are now to the point the WHO defines as "pandemic imminent" and schools in our immediate area are closing. We think we may have made the first swine flu-related EMS call in our jurisdiction yesterday and the City's memorandum-of-record, from last night, says essentially "move along, nothing to see here."

Sober and context-rich analysis is lacking in the media, but it is also lacking in these emails. Just because the media implies a bunch of people are going to die does not mean that quite a few people won't die. Antipathy toward the press has in this case turned preparedness on its head and, perversely, actively discourages people from planning and preparing for things to get worse. It was obvious then (this was last night) and is more obvious now that things are getting worse and will continue to do so for some time.

Most of the people who received those emails/memoranda are not firefighters or cops or paramedics, they are just regular people. Discouraging them from preparing is bad enough, but authoritatively telling police, fire, and EMS supervisors that the the threat is inflated and minimal is downright reckless.

It is always appropriate to strike a calm and reasoned tone, but it is also always appropriate to be honest and not allow our biases to unduly affect our conclusions. That includes biases against the media and the urge to show people your head is even more level than theirs.