What part does your department play in your community? What part do you play in your department? Perhaps it is clearer to ask, What do we do? We all can likely form some coherent answers to these questions, some obvious and some not so obvious. It is easy to say that we fight fires, we provide medical aide, we provide heavy rescue services, we mitigate hazmat emergencies, et cetera. These are the functions under the heading of public safety for which the American fire service has assumed responsibility. Our raison d’être is clearly fire suppression; some of these other functions have been appended onto that service organically, such as rescue. Some have been taken on willingly or foisted unwillingly because the fire department was the only organization remotely appropriate, as with hazmat and EMS. But what of our role in homeland security? What is our part in homeland security, what do we do in that discipline?
This question has probably never even crossed the minds of many, both in and out of the fire service. For most it appears self-evident that the fire service responds to terrorist events, as FDNY, Arlington County FD, and the Shanksville VFD did on 9/11. Despite what some politicians and law enforcement officials would like to forget, that is absolutely correct, but it only tells part of the story. We are all familiar with two very simple levels of knowledge: the how and the why. If the picture of the fire service and homeland security is defined iconically by the FDNY bravely marching into the WTC then that is the how. But those who study public policy are familiar with the concept of policy- making by anecdote whereby a policy is implemented based on one or a few highly visible instances; this is the knee-jerk reaction grounded on an incomplete picture. The image of the fire service on 9/11 is a close kin: mission definition by anecdote.
We are rightly awed by the heroism of the firefighters on that terrible morning and we are proud to honor them. Still, the supposed self-evidence of our role is lacking once we move forward from the ubiquitous 9/11 imagery. Absent in the fire service is a national concept of our purpose beyond the piecemeal explanations of “we do fire, hazmat, rescue, and EMS.” We must all be missionaries of our service, evangelists who spread the good news of the fire service. This is a military concept that the fire service would do well to adopt and the first step in that direction involves defining a common mission statement. The fire service has failed in the strategic communications game in more ways than I can count, in many cases ceding the high ground directly to law enforcement. If we cannot explain why we are important to homeland security beyond putting out the fires and aiding the injured then we are not making a very compelling case. That stuff is mundane, common: what we do every day. Does the Navy argue for itself on the grounds that it drops bombs on people? Or the Army that it shoots people? Those are the how, but people and budgets are swayed by the why. The fire service needs to explain how it fits into the homeland security paradigm on a “why” basis. To get there we encounter a formidable obstacle: the fire service has little understanding of the strategies of the terrorists.
Nearly all training from the federal agencies that trickles down to the fire service is on the tactical level, but again that deals with the how and not the why. We need a clearer picture and articulation of the fire service’s role as part of a strategic counter to the likes of al Qaeda. In so doing we may find a path to help us fully conceptualize our place in homeland security beyond 9/11.