Chapter Eighteen: How professional firefighters do it
When a fire alarm goes off in Bloomfield or a call comes in to 911, often as not the fire department gets called, sometimes it is a false alarm, sometimes it is a serious emergency. Yet, as fire officials have begun to note over the last decade, the fire department responds to more and numerous kinds of calls, some relating to the traditional role fire fighters played in the past, sometimes not
If someone's wires short out in their car, the fire department gets a call. If someone spills a can of gasoline or paint thinner, the fire department gets a call. When the police department finds a window damaged or a piece of masonry hanging from a building, the fire department gets a call to come help secure the property. When high winds knock loose a high voltage wire, the fire department usually helps block the street until professional electrical people can get to the scene from PSE&G. While the fire department rescue squad is the team that shows up with its Jaws of Life to extricate a car crash victim from the twisted wreckage, they are also the people called to get a resident's kid who has locked himself in the bathroom, or crawled out onto the roof seeking his cat. It is the fire department who generally gets called when a man locks his keys in his car or his running car in a closed garage. Someone doesn't always have to smell smoke, any odd scent will do, and the fire department gets the call.
In saying that fire fighting isn't what it used to be, Deputy Chief Joseph L. Intile doesn't even cover the half of the changes which modern fire departments have undergone.
A generation ago, fire fighters fit the tradition image of men sliding down a pole to board their trucks, racing across towns in an effort to fight a fire, but now, firefighters have become watchdogs against fires, seeking more than just suppression of fires. While firefighters of today still have to risk their lives to save people who might otherwise die in a flaming inferno, much of what the modern firefighter does involves personal interaction with people like never before, helping people deal with non-tradition problems, as well as in keeping fires from happening.
Intile has been deputy chief since 1991, captain since 1984, and a fire fighter since 1979, and when interviewed during the summer of 1998, was one of the candidates for the possibly reestablished position of fire chief in Bloomfield.
Many believe Intile had all the markings of the modern fire fighter, someone whose education and talents seem to fit the model of what is required in contemporary and future fire suppression services. For all this, fire fighting runs in his family, his father was a captain, so was his wife's grandfather, and he said he takes pride in the profession.
As a ranking officer in the Bloomfield Fire Department, Intile not only oversees the putting out of fires (coordinating fire suppression activities between the various department divisions, as his resume puts it), but he must also learn skills traditionally left to business in the past, management techniques that allow him to make best use of the men, women and equipment under this command.
"We are mainly offering a customer service, not just fighting fires any more," Intile said. "Anything that goes wrong, people call the fire department."
"Fire Prevention" are the key words to the new concept of firefighting, which Intile claims is ten times more effective at saving lives than running a hose out when the smoke and flames start, and prevention has become a modern day art form, requiring firefighters to be better educated and more adept at dealing with people.
Contrary to what some in the public might believe, fire fighting is a all year round job, each season bringing is share of dangers to the community, from electrical wires falling in high wind storms, to kerosene heaters turning over in the winter. In attempting to catch some of these things before they happen, fire fighters go out into the community, inspect homes and businesses, showing those who live or work in such places what things could pose a risk in the future and how to make these places as fire resistant as possible.
Paid Firefighters in many towns take in-service training twice a year to keep up with the latest knowledge and get caught up on the latest breakthroughs in technology. While volunteer firefighters such as in Secaucus, take similar courses, sometimes funded by the towns where they operate, sometimes by donations, many times by fees earned through inspections or fines.
Firefighters might learn more about gear for safer fighting of fires, or the newest warnings on certain household goods. Some of this information might even save their own lives, such as the change of law to fit newly constructed buildings which use what are called "trusses." Such a building won't allow a fire fighter to stand on that roof during a fire for more than 25 to 30 minutes. Fire fighters also learn how to work as a team, which members of a squad do what job and when.
Fire fighters get CPR training in Bloomfield, many are volunteer EMTS, some get trained for hazardous material handling, others learn how to deal with the public aspect of a disaster, how to handle emotionally distraught victims during the crisis and after.
"When I first became a fire fighter in 1979, the department had 120 men, now we have 88," Intile said. "We're doing the same work or more with less."
This has required a whole change of concept in addressing fire fighting with fire fighters required to maintain an awareness of what goes on before, during and after a fire. Intile calls it "a defensive art."
Indeed, in seeking to become the new fire chief, Intile seems to be a model of the modern fire fighter. His resume reads like an executive's with a degree from Jersey City State College in Fire Protection Administration to his seeking a masters in Administrative Science from Fairleigh Dickinson University with so many courses in Criminal Justice that he could have qualified in it for a second major.
Over the last few years, he inherited more and more responsibility for how emergency situations got handled, and during that time, he implemented some of his own procedures, creating and implementing things like the Respiratory Protection Program. He also helped establish department level Standard Operating Procedures, and implemented new procedures for incident command and other matters of this kind, building towards a more modern fire fighting organization.
Perhaps the crowning glory to the educational side of his career came when recieved his degree in 1998 from the US Fire Administrations's National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Office Program, conducted in Emmitburg, Maryland, a national study group that Fire Director Frank Pross said marked one more change in the department's way of operating.
"This is quite a feather in the department's cap," Pross said. "The lessons he learned involves a management style that is becoming the standard all over the country and where all fire service is going to be in a few years. He studied in area we need to go in the future."
The program brings together some of the top people from around the country in the field of fire suppression, helping these people learn the leadership and management skills necessary for operating a modern and efficient fire department. Over the four years, these fire officials learn theory, case study, analysis. They use reflection and introspection and self observation in order to become better managers on the scene.
Intile and others learned how to help their departments work as a team, and how to encourage individual and professional development as well as developing various other problem solving skills. They studied the concept of leadership, ethics, creativity, innovation, marketing in the public sector, organization change and development, outside perspectives, service quality management, and the legal aspects of fire protection as well as many, many other aspects including shaping management models, using technology and the functional changes related to deliver of fire and emergency services.
One of the reasons why Intile took the four year course had to do with finding new ways to solve old problems, yet at the same time, knowing that answers might be available with other professional.
"I didn't want to re-invent the wheel," he said. "I just wanted to find some things out and bring them back to Bloomfield."
Pross called Intile "one of the key people for the future of the Bloomfield fire department," a modern fire fighter with a greater understanding the fire department and its role in the community.
By moving towards some of the aspects of business, Pross said, the fire department broadened its ability to serve the the public. But this change can only come by increasing the training of the fire fighters in not just in the every day techniques of fighting fire, but in other areas, such as the development of a professional attitude which emphasizes the need for the fire department to provide a service to the public.
"The taxpayers are our customers," he said.
One of the innovations Pross brought on board when he became director was to implement a survey form, giving a card to each resident they come in contact with during an emergency situation, asking them to rate the service and send it back to the department.
"This was not a political thing," Pross said. "We made sure everything was handled properly. We wanted to see what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong, and we want to correct anything people feel is wrong about the department so that we could do what we do in a better fashion."
"We issue cards after alarm and we have to go to someone house," Intile said. "This involves two pieces of quality control. We talk to people and we give them the survey and we ask them what the weak points were in the situation."
Pross said the card given to residents on the scene has gone a long way towards bridging the communications gap that existed before. Some people even sent letters back with the cards, and most of the responses were positive.
"Maybe 98 to 99 percent were positive," Pross said. "And that is bench mark we intend to maintain. We want to provide better service to the community."
Pross' appointment as a fire director and many of the other changes implemented to the fire department came after a extremely critical 1993 management study that showed significant problems in the department.
The primary problems, according to the report, was a lack of confidence in the leadership abilities of the chief and deputy chiefs.
To address this, the report recommended the temporary appointment of a fire director and the elimination of the fire chief position.
This gave the fire director the awesome task of improving management skills of the department's top people, and in particular, strengthening the human resource component of the department through teamwork.
According to the 1996 Local Government Budget Review of the Township of Bloomfield, done through the auspices of the New Jersey Department of the Treasury, the number of grievances fell from as many as 50 a year before Pross came on to two in 1995.
While Intile earned a lot from his trips south to the academy, one aspect stuck in his mind more than most, revolving around the differing approaches to fire fighting that other countries said.
"In places like Europe, Australia and Japan, a fire is treated like a crime," Intile said. "If someone causes a fire through carelessness, they are charged for putting the community at a risk. Very few fires are accidental, usually have a human factor, whether by design or not. Lightning can cause a fire, a car can go up in flames, people can get careless smoke or drink or unattended cooking. They might forget they have a pizza in the oven and then we have to come and put it out. But In America, we treat fire as an accident. No one is really responsible."
Intile often questions this approach, especially after nearly twenty years of having to fight fires and saving lives.
"Maybe we need to reexamine our society's view," he said.