The new U.S. fire administrator said all agency activities are being reviewed through the lens of how it makes the U.S. Fire Administration a data-driven and “mission-driven organization” to “strengthen and support” the fire service, because if “we are not doing something related to the mission, then we’re going to have something new.”
USFA launched its new podcast this week to feature fire and EMS experts from around the nation each month discussing programs and issues affecting first responders.
Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, a longtime advocate for the fire service, was sworn in as U.S. fire administrator in October. She began her career as the sixth woman hired at the Memphis Fire Department, spending seven years there as a fire paramedic before moving on to the International Association of Fire Fighters as an EMS specialist.
“You have things put in your path, I believe: people, events, circumstances that sort of lead you where you’re supposed to be,” she told podcast host Teresa Neal, USFA fire program specialist. “I’m thrilled to be where I’m sitting right now with the opportunity and hope to make it better than I found it.”
Moore-Merrell said it’s important to increase visibility about USFA and the “very passionate people here who want to make a difference” while attracting even more talent to the agency, its programs and outreach.
“Certainly it’s a great place for those who want to be involved in training the next generation,” she said. “…One of the most noble things I believe that anybody can do is to teach someone else what you know, to pass on your knowledge and capability. Those who learn from you are indebted to you. You’ve given them something of value. That’s what I want people to know is this is an opportunity. For those in the fire service, who want to give back, this is a place that you can do that.”
A key driver of the USFA is “making sure that we are helping the fire service have its capability and the capacity they need to serve” amid natural disasters and other crises.
“If we help ensure that they have the capability to respond, and they have the training they need, the people they need, the capacity of resources, if we can help them with that, then it may be that FEMA never has to respond because our local emergency responders handled the situation,” Moore-Merrell said. “…If we can make sure that they can have that first response, do as much rescue as possible in these moments to curtail the bad events that are happening, so that there’s a much more viable situation when FEMA resources arrive, that’s our role.”
The agency is reflecting on its vision for an “assertive” future because “it is time to innovate, it is time to modernize, it is time to enhance our capability, and for me, status quo is not acceptable,” she said. USFA also intends to build on its status as a model for federal agencies going green, with one building so far that relies on solar.
Moore-Merrell has elevated an agency wildland fire expert to report directly to her. Leveraging her most recent experience as president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute, Moore-Merrell said the agency is “engaging wildland directly a lot from the data perspective, but also from community risk reduction, research, delivering a knowledge-based and fact-based science, working with NIST for example.”
“So data is something we’re going to do better here. We are going to modernize and innovate this data system. This legacy data system, God bless it, but we’re going to have a memorial service very soon,” she continued. “We are going to maintain it for the next little bit, until we can stand up a new system. We are going to stand up a new cloud-based system with a much more streamlined data set. So that means we’re going to be rewriting what is today is NFIRS 5. That’s going to no longer exist. We will be building a new, relevant data standard with data elements that are streamlined, that are must have, not the superfluous or nice-to-know information. What that does is allow us to get quality and quantity data.”
Today, 56 percent of fire departments contribute data to USFA. Moore-Merrell wants to see that at 100 percent, aided by technology that can “capture data rather than collect it.”
Every program and every position is going to be evaluated at USFA to “make sure that people are where they can be effective and efficient” and ensure “that everybody is in their own hearts being fulfilled.”
“There’s a lot of passionate people here. They want to make a difference, and I want them to have a real opportunity to do that,” she said. “And so opening those doors, making sure people are where they are with their skill set, their talents, or where they want to be. If they want training, like I said, we’re going to figure out how to get it. Those are the kinds of things that I think will help this vision along.”
Long-term budget planning is also underway, including some proposed changes with “a true EMS section.” And USFA is also looking at diversity, equity and inclusion as “the fire service is just on the tipping point of really making some change culturally,” Moore-Merrell said. “…To change culture, we’ve got to first change behavior. So having no tolerance for psychologically unsafe workplaces. We worry a lot about our safety when we are at work. We’ve got to begin as fire service leaders to talk about psychological safety as well.”
With so much to accomplish, Moore-Merrell said it’s important to stay focused. “We have to be in lockstep with our national fire service organizations, and they with us so that we can accomplish things that we need to accomplish during this administration,” she said.
Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Tonya Hoover told the podcast that “fire and EMS, as well as our allied professionals, they too should be very excited about what’s happening at the USFA.”
“The future is bright. There is so much going on here. When I came to the USFA as the superintendent of the NFA, I didn’t realize how much was going on,” Hoover said. “What’s unfortunate is that folks at that local and state level don’t have the opportunity to really engage with what’s going on here. So I want to encourage folks: call, email, write letters, stay engaged. There is an incredible amount of information here.”
“We know that so much happens beyond the walls of the USFA,” she continued. “I want folks to feel better about reaching out and contacting us and having this relationship with the USFA. I want folks to see the USFA as being a strong partner with the work that they’re doing in their communities and in their states.”