Dennis Davis reports on this year's annual US-UK Fire Service Symposium
Between the first and fourth of May, the United States hosted the 16th meeting of the US-UK Fire Service Symposium in Washington DC. The District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Service Chief is Dennis Rubin and he and his DCFD colleagues made considerable efforts - enhanced by the backdrop of their spectacular city - to ensure the symposium was successful. On the Thursday evening preceding the symposium, the US Congressional Fire Services Institute held its 22nd National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner. For those unaware of this event, it is the major FRS social gathering of the year - and luckily, as guests of the USA IFE Branch, UK symposium delegates were able to attend.
The event is attended by around 1,700 people and a 'Specially Invited Guest' traditionally gives the keynote address. In the past this has included the incumbent President, while this year the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano gave it, acknowledging the vast contribution made to improving the quality of public life by the US Fire and Rescue Service. A range of Senators and Congressmen from the bipartisan Capitol Fire Caucus added their comments to create what was a rather special evening - which included an award to Sharon Gamache of the NFPA for her fire safety education work.
Around 30 people participated in the symposium. It commenced with a very solid FRS business case for marketing and communication led by Marc Revere of Novato California. This prompted numerous discussion points, especially related to reaching the right people and gaining value from expenditure. Cynthia Leighton of Motorola followed Marc, providing a real insight into ongoing commercial radio communication technology research and candidly answering questions including some on the vexed Holy Grail of telemetry, internal location and monitoring of SCBA operators.
Next up was DCFD Chief Rubin who talked participants through the June 22, 2009 DC Metro Transit Train Crash that killed nine and left 51 seriously injured. He described the effectiveness of the operation, and although the similarities to London's Underground are limited (for instance, the DC Metro runs in much wider tunnels and the incident occurred above ground) DCFD has visited London to share experiences. One visit outcome was the purchase by DCFD of the track transport machines developed in the UK to aid FRS deployment over networks.
A scheduled free Saturday night in DC turned unexpectedly into celebrity spotting when it transpired that the President was to appear across from the symposium venue at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents' Association. This event dwarfed the CFSI dinner, with nearly 3,000 diners and a host of glitterati. Seemingly every journalist or stringer in the USA appears to want to attend, along with the great and good of Hollywood and television. Seen leaving immediately after the President was Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, who was rushing back to the city after learning about the failed Times Square attack.
Normal service resumed on Sunday, with an excellent practical demonstration of interservice cooperation based upon a water rescue in the Potomac River. This exercise was all the more remarkable given the nature of the US federal government system, which in DC alone requires that the DCFD has to work seamlessly alongside 49 different law enforcement agencies. Washington DC has a significant water environment, so considerable resources such as boats and helicopters are immediately available for deployment, with one DCFD fireboat even acting as the river's winter icebreaker.
The session that followed the field trip concentrated upon military aid to the civil powers, with Bill Peterson the symposium's US Secretary, and Howard Robinson of Leicestershire FRS. The impressive development of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency post-Hurricane Katrina - with renewed powerful links into the Department of Defense and fuelled by a White House 'never again' edict - was obvious. So was the strength of the UK development programme post 9/11 and 7/7, with the associated and extensive doctrine now established with the Ministry of Defence. Sunday started with a presentation and discussion that indicated yet again the great comparability between the two countries, when Underwriters Laboratory John Bender informed participants about UL ongoing research evaluating building collapse. US Fire and Rescue Service voices are just as strident regarding timber framed building as our own, since US manufacturers adopted more modern methods of construction. The expressions of concern regarding higher risk from what our US colleagues regard as the growing use of non-traditional timber constructions was frankly striking. If there was ever a case for sharing knowledge, this session had it by the spadeful.
Billy Hayes, DCFD Director of Community Affairs - perhaps unknowingly - unleashed in the next session one of the liveliest symposium discussions. The session was based around community education and culture. In arguments centred on getting firefighters to shift their cultural focus from intervention to prevention, the long distance travelled in the UK along this particular route was clearly illustrated with arguments centred on getting firefighters to shift their cultural focus from intervention to prevention. This subject remains set to continue to excite passions and thinking.
Continuing the theme of operational preparedness, retired Phoenix Arizona Chief Alan Brunacini explained his programme for certifying competency in incident command. Well known in the US and UK for pioneering work in incident command and community safety, Alan displayed drive and humour as he extolled the virtues of competent command and building FRS operational quality from the ground upwards. A fascinating debate on legal issues affecting fire suppression then followed, with a real jaw dropping moment when Howard Robinson advised US colleagues of exactly where UK law was heading in terms of corporate manslaughter. Many believe the whole idea and practice of a litigious society came from the US. With this in mind, Chief Phil Stittleburg of LaFarge Wisconsin, who is Chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council, was remarkably reassuring. He said that the USA has some 3,214 counties each with a District Attorney, but prosecution would generally be avoided unless there was obvious recklessness in the Chief's behaviour.
Reflecting the global financial meltdown, the final discussion centred on the issue of improving service delivery in fiscally challenging times. Deftly presented by Tony Crook of Lancashire FRS, this session offered an informed view from one of the UK's best performing FRS on how they were attempting to move the broader community safety agenda forward. The session was broken up with many practical examples that helped draw earlier symposium themes together and prompted numerous requests for copies of Lancashire's plans and strategy. This debate offered a fitting closure on another beneficial and worthwhile educational exchange.
Next year the symposium moves back to the UK, possibly to Scotland. Already well over 200 fire-related professionals have joined in the symposium, which remains informative, safe and challenging. As ever, interested, aspiring younger senior FRS individuals are invited to contact their country's secretary to learn more.