Acting as One Voice: USFA Strategies for Safer Communities and Strong Fire Departments

By Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell
Reprinted from the NVFC’s Firefighter Strong publication

This year [2023] marks the 50th anniversary of the America Burning Report that told the story of the fire problem in America at a time when more than 12,000 people were dying in fires annually. While we have made great strides in reducing the threat and the death toll in the nation, America still has a fire problem. The fire and emergency medical services throughout this nation must continue to work to prevent fire and to reduce the risks associated with fires that do occur. We have the science that informs decision makers. Now, it is time to act on what we know matters.

In 2022, we had nearly 2,500 fire deaths, many that occurred in multiples of twos, threes, fours, and more across this nation mostly in poor communities of color. The same is true for the more than 850 deaths that occurred in the first three-and-a-half months of 2023. This situation is one of the greatest inequities we face. Safe and affordable homes should not be a mutually exclusive choice. While addressing equity, we must also address personal accountability in fire safety practices. We must teach individuals to make themselves savable by observing well-known safety practices like having working smoke alarms and knowing their path of egress from any building they are in but especially where they live.

In structure fires today, fire moves fast due to light weight building materials and the vast amounts of plastics, foams, and other synthetic materials in our homes and businesses. Often the building itself may fail long before firefighters arrive, particularly in structures not built to codes and standards. Despite our vast technological advances, the fact remains that during a fire today, you have the least amount of time to safely exit your burning home than at any time in history. Your chance of dying in a fire today is higher than 40 years ago. Science-informed codes and standards that are adopted, implemented, and enforced in structures are an occupant’s first line of safety in a fire. The second is having working smoke alarms, self-closing doors and residential sprinklers in multi-family and public housing, and knowing a path of egress so that you can get out and stay out. As firefighters arrive, they will engage expeditiously to intervene to suppress and stop the fire and will provide additional instructions.

To better communicate and amplify these messages, the U.S Fire Administration (USFA) launched the Fire and Life Safety Communicators’ Initiative (FLSCI) in the spring of 2022. This initiative is intended to bring the nation’s fire service communicators together monthly to discuss a common plan for messaging. The communicators share ideas, resources, and influence to change the narrative of the alarming number of fire deaths and curtail the amount of property loss throughout the U.S. The FLSCI has created a shared theme calendar so that the full power of the fire service can get behind the messaging and push information down to local departments then out to the public to change fire safety behaviors. Find the calendar here.

Beyond our national communication collaboration, in October 2022, the first USFA Summit on Fire Prevention and Control was held at the National Emergency Training Center in Emmitsburg, MD. Leaders from all national fire service organizations assembled to participate in a roundtable with top political officials from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security. A result of the Summit was the establishment of a Fire Service National Strategy that included prominent national organizations agreeing to speak with one voice on the issues. There are six National Strategy goals:

  1. Prepare all firefighters for the climate-driven increase in wildfires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) by providing them with the proper training and equipment.
  2. Invest in a national apprenticeship program to address the shortage of firefighters and to make the fire service more diverse and inclusive.
  3. Establish a comprehensive firefighter cancer strategy that invests in research, provides access to screening for firefighters, and reduces and eliminates PFAS exposure.
  4. Provide behavioral health resources and suicide prevention initiatives for all firefighters.
  5. Create safer communities by implementing and enforcing codes and standards, especially in the WUI and underserved and vulnerable populations providing affordable and fire-safe housing.
  6. Elevate the fire service in federal policy development to an equal basis with law enforcement.

Based on one of our Fire Service National Strategy goals, the USFA will stand with our national partners to address the physical and behavioral health challenges that continue to affect our responders. For example, we will be working with our federal partners at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to continue to study personal protective equipment and to assure we can share data with the National Firefighter [Cancer] Registry. We will also work with our fire service partners to promote and expand behavioral health resilience training programs to assure that responders have the resources they need to stay healthy both physically and mentally.

In addition to addressing the fire problem and the goals in the National Strategy, we must also prepare responders for the changing landscape of All Hazards. Our fire and emergency medical services (EMS) departments large and small, career, combination, or volunteer must also continue to prepare to respond to the consequence of the actions of violent extremists and during civil unrest that will inevitably occur. This preparedness may include continued or new methods of training with our law enforcement partners for integrated response. NFPA 3000 provides the standard for developing a plan for response to active shooter and hostile events.

Like many other federal agencies, our National Fire Data Center along with local fire and EMS departments is modernizing using advancements in technology and sensors, as well as non-traditional data sources coupled with community risk assessments, and historic response data to better understand the reality of today’s risk environment including the impact of climate change on our resources.

For the USFA specifically, modernization will address the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) system. NFIRS has not been updated since 2002 when it became web based. The nation’s fire service needs a platform that will use 21st-century technology for procuring, assembling, analyzing, and reporting information from available data. The modernization efforts will be twofold:

  1. Build a new cloud-based system with modernized data capture, collection, assembly, analytics, and reporting capability.
  2. Review, revamp, and redeploy a new streamlined data standard to be relevant, timely, and perpetuate good quality data entry and clean data capture while leveraging many data sources that already exist outside the fire service.

Finally, together we will continue to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the fire service. This is a priority, and I believe that together with the fire service we have the ability and the desire to lead and implement programs to create an inclusive, diverse, and psychologically safe workplace. We can teach cultural awareness of the challenges faced by firefighters from underrepresented groups. I believe that there is a growing willingness to challenge and transform the harmful aspects of the traditional fire service culture.

It is my absolute honor to serve as your Fire Administrator. USFA stands ready to engage with our industry, and I look forward to working with you. Together, we can take action to change the trajectory of the ever-increasing fire threat in America and create resilient landscapes, safe affordable housing, and healthy responders for generations to come.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell was appointed by President Joseph Biden as the U.S. Fire Administrator on October 25, 2021. Prior to her appointment, she served nearly three years as the president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute, which she founded after retiring from a 26-year tenure as a senior executive in the International Association of Fire Fighters. She began her fire service career in 1987 as a fire department paramedic in the City of Memphis (TN) Fire Department. She is a Doctor of Public Health and data scientist, whose work has changed fire and EMS deployment throughout the world.