Kelvin Cochran, the new U.S. Fire Administrator, talks about his ambitions for the USFA, getting out front on issues, and the country's evolving fire threat-and what NFPA members can do to help
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2010
Kelvin Cochran, the new U.S. Fire Administrator, says he wants to "put the fire back" in the USFA, and his ambitious goals for the administration suggest he means business.
Goal-Oriented Kelvin Cochran's to-do list at the U.S. Fire Administration:
- Improving fire prevention and life safety
- Reducing line-of-duty deaths and injuries
- Evaluating and enhancing emergency preparedness and response
- Evaluating the impacts of federal fire grants
- Enhancing the national incident reporting system
- Building additional professional development opportunities for the U.S. fire service
- Enhancing EMS initiatives within the U.S. Fire Administration
- Launching a capital improvements and facilities initiative
Cochran, who began his new job in August, is charged with overseeing, coordinating, and directing national efforts to prevent fires and improve fire response. He will oversee fire prevention and safety education programs, and professional development programs, for emergency responders at all levels.
Cochran has spent 28 years in the fire service, starting in his native Shreveport, Louisiana, and most recently served as Fire Chief for the City of Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. He has served as President of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association, the first vice-president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and vice-chairman of Volunteers of America.
Cochran recently spoke with Scott Sutherland, NFPA Journal executive editor, about his ambitions for the fire service and the role NFPA can play in those goals.
What are the key fire threats faced by the nation?
For the first 30 years or so of the existence of the U.S. Fire Administration, we saw a constant downward trend in the loss of lives and injuries to civilians and a steady reduction in property losses. The last three years or so has seen a sort of stabilization of those trends—we no longer enjoy those consistently downward numbers. And we’re seeing property loss and civilian deaths and injuries in the most troublesome targeted demographics of the country, which are senior citizens, children, and Americans who are living in poverty. That suggests we still have some work to do in those areas.
Are there specific initiatives underway to address some of those issues?
Yes, there are. We’ve got to conduct an analysis of the current state of the fire problem in the U.S. and develop more data. Then we can identify the specific geographic locations facing those challenges, and we can revise and direct programs to those areas.
Are there new partnerships or alliances the Fire Administration should make to address some of those issues?
At this stage, all the relationships or partnerships that we need have been established. But we can work to strengthen those bonds. I’ve already come up to NFPA headquarters to meet with Jim Shannon and his leadership team, and I’ll meet with other fire service stakeholders with the idea that no relationship is taken for granted. Of the eight strategic initiatives I’ve laid out, the U.S. Fire Administration by itself does not have the resources or influence to accomplish any of them, so we need the support and participation of all of our fire service stakeholders to achieve them.
Your eight points are all pretty big—it seems like a lot to tackle in the next three years.
With the resources of the U.S. Fire Administration alone, you’re right—those goals are probably overly ambitious. But they can be achieved with the help of stakeholders like the NFPA and a host of others. But I believe we can achieve seven of the eight, for sure. The eighth one has to do with long-term capital needs of the National Emergency Training Centers, and to accomplish all of that within three years isn’t possible. But the rest are highly possible if all of our stakeholders are fully involved in our strategic plan.
You’ve said you want to "put the fire back" in the USFA. What fire do you think has been lost, and how do you want to rekindle it?
To me, it means that there are going to be some issues where the U.S. Fire Administration takes a stand and exhibits more leadership, as opposed to taking a wait-and-see approach to addressing those issues.
What are some of those issues?
The firefighter safety issue is something we have to be more vocal and assertive about, and through the Vulnerability Assessment Project, which is one of our eight strategic initiatives, we intend to do exactly that. As U.S. Fire Administrator, I should take a more public stand on issues that continue to contribute to line-of-duty deaths and injuries, on issues related to best practices for fairness and equity in hiring and recruitment and promotional practices, and issues addressing the challenge of fairness and equity in disciplinary procedures and grievance procedures.
Are there specific moments in your career that shaped you as a firefighter and that shaped the vision you have for the Fire Administration?
Every event in my life, from the time I was five years old and saw a fire across the street from where I lived, every event contributed to me being where I am today and contributed to my love for the profession.
What did you witness in that fire?
We lived in an alley where there was just a row of shotgun houses on both sides of the alley, and this huge red fire truck squeezed in that alley. The lady across the street, her house was on fire. Watching those Shreveport firefighters get off the truck and put on those long black hip boots and those coats and pull off the hose and go in the house was just enough to set my soul on fire, so to speak. That’s all I’ve wanted to do ever since.
How can the USFA expand its mission?
The participation of the U.S. Fire Administration post-September 11 and post-Hurricane Katrina was significant, but we can take a more assertive leadership role in emergency preparedness and response. I believe that the expectation of the American people and the American fire service is that on chemical, radiological, nuclear, biological, and explosive disasters at the national level and on natural disasters that reach a national level of declaration, the U.S. Fire Administration play a lead role, not a support role.
The USFA has done its part in its originally legislated mission—there’s too much evidence that proves that we have made a difference. But there are other opportunities that have come along since, and we missed out on some of those. I don’t intend for us to miss out on any in the future.
How do the codes and standards that NFPA develops fit into your goals for the U.S. Fire Administration?
Of the eight strategic initiatives we’re taking on, NFPA codes and standards and the influence of NFPA as an organization have a direct influence on every one of them, particularly those outside of our capital improvement projects. Actually, based on the influence NFPA has on the legislative processes, I think it’s safe to say NFPA has a direct influence on our capital improvement initiative, too. So we intend to use NFPA codes and standards as a guide for best practices for the American fire service in all of those areas. Along with data we collect through the National Fire Incident Reporting System, we’ll use the high-quality data collected through NFPA research to help us achieve our initiatives.
What would you most want to say to NFPA members?
I want to say to NFPA members that it’s definitely time for every member to become fully involved in NFPA in your particular section or in your particular committee. Don’t just be a card-carrying member that renews your membership without any involvement, without any participation—be fully involved in your section and in the committees, and in the code-development and review and revision process, because the more member involvement we have in fire-service organizations, the more impactful and influential fire service organizations are to help move forward the issues that affect the American fire service at the federal level.
How much of a threat is that?
Attrition is a huge threat in the fire service. Across the nation, we are experiencing gross numbers of firefighters leaving. And the numbers are increasing. Two years prior to my leaving Shreveport, one-third of the upper-level leaders retired from the Shreveport Fire Department—that was about 90 members of the department, senior leaders. The 20 months that I was Fire Chief in the City of Atlanta, 200 senior leaders retired from the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department. And those numbers are representative of metropolitan departments across the country. That’s one reason why professional development is one of our strategic initiatives, because the current training and development programs we have to equip future leaders are not adequate for the volume of vacancies that we’re going to have.
What is your take on NFPA’s fire sprinkler initiative?
I think NFPA has done an outstanding job on the "Bringing Safety Home" fire sprinkler initiative. NFPA has always, I think, set the example in leadership on the progressive issues in the fire service—NFPA always jumps out in front. We are enjoying tremendous unified support from all major fire-service stakeholders on the residential sprinkler initiative.
What did you think of the International Code Council’s move to uphold code requirements for residential sprinklers?
It’s a tremendous step towards the long-term goal of achieving residential fire sprinklers in one- and two-family dwellings across the nation. Of course, the fight is not over. We’ve got to push our cause down to the state and local levels. But the momentum is there.
Did you go to the hearings in Baltimore?
No, but we achieved a tremendous milestone at the United States Fire Administration. I requested permission from the White House to allow me to testify at the hearing, which we’ve never been allowed to do before. To do so would mean we’re articulating a public position of the president and the White House. And we got permission to do it. Unfortunately, by the time we got permission, my schedule had committed me to something else. Glenn Gaines, our deputy Fire Administrator, testified on my behalf. This is a tremendous show of support from President Obama, and it shows his appreciation for America’s fire problem and his willingness to do courageous things to address it.
Are there other initiatives you see NFPA and the U.S. Fire Administration partnering on in the future?
I mentioned earlier that we’re taking on the development of the vulnerability assessment self-assessment tool that fire chiefs can use at the local level. For it to be successful, we’ll need to have NFPA shoulder to shoulder with us.
We’ll also need NFPA support for our initiative to evaluate the impacts of the federal grants that the fire service has benefited from for the last eight years. We need to formally analyze those grants and ask, "Are they making a difference?" We know the answer is "yes," but we don’t have evidence to prove it. We’ll need NFPA’s resources to pull that off.
Interview conducted and edited by Scott Sutherland.
Our woman in Washington offers a look at how NFPA gets things done inside the Beltway
By Nancy McNabb
A Congressional staffer recently offered me a blunt declaration that reflects the sentiments of many officials in the new, Obama-era government. "We’re not interested in funding more programs," he told me. "We’re interested in results."
Fortunately, this mood plays to NFPA’s strengths, making my job as NFPA’s director of Government Affairs that much easier. The mission of our office in Washington, D.C., is to advance NFPA’s interests at the federal level by championing safety and health initiatives, helping draft new laws and regulations, and sometimes discouraging new legislation. No matter what we’re trying to accomplish, NFPA’s technical expertise and information is a powerful tool for working with a government increasingly interested in using data and science to drive decision making.
But working inside the Beltway isn’t always about data and science—it’s also about understanding how things get done in government. We work with diverse interest groups—fire-service organizations, nongovernmental associations, government agencies, and legislative and executive officials and their staffs, from the municipal to the federal level—and these collaborations are critical for our effectiveness.
An ongoing NFPA success story involves the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which has adopted 27 NFPA standards and recently gave SAFETY Act designation as a "qualified anti-terrorism technology" and certification as an approved product for homeland security to 15 NFPA standards. Designation and certification legally protect our code-development process and the codes and standards used in anti-terrorism applications. The Federal Emergency Management Agency at DHS has created the Voluntary Private Sector Accreditation and Certification Program, mandated to enact the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission. NFPA 1600, Disaster/Emergency Preparedness and Business Continuity, was named in the legislation and is one of three finalists being considered for adoption. Comments have been solicited and hearings are taking place nationwide until January 15, 2010.
Tracking the actions of federal agencies is a large part of what we do. More than 200 federal agency employees sit on NFPA technical committees, and the scope of those agencies has changed recently. In general, agencies used to inform stakeholders about standards; now, they use those standards to actually regulate. In the last year, a number of agencies, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Archives and Records Administration, have updated and addressed NFPA standards. Our office typically provides comments or information to inform or encourage these policy initiatives.
For example, worker protection from combustible dust explosions is an important issue in Washington. Recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding its development of federal regulations for combustible dust precautions in the workplace. This action was brought on by multiple dust explosions and mobilized by a bill introduced in the 110th Congress and reintroduced in the 111th. The bill directs OSHA to develop safety provisions based on applicable portions of relevant NFPA standards. Amy Cronin, NFPA’s Codes and Standards Administration division manager, testified at both the House and Senate hearings. Partly through our involvement, OSHA’s new leadership has allowed the regulatory effort to proceed without a Congressional mandate.
Sometimes, what is not done at the agency level is most important to our mission. We recently joined a coalition to relate our concerns over a proposed change to OSHA’s Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory program. We met with congressional staff, wrote joint letters, participated in a webinar, and sent comments individually. As developer of NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, it was important for NFPA to emphasize that, in the area of electrical product safety, third-party certification is the most effective method to ensure compliance with safety standards. So far, our efforts have been successful.
Similarly, we sometimes need to keep things out of federal legislation, as was the case with the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act. Federal fire-safe cigarette legislation was initially introduced in 2002 but did not move forward.
Well-intentioned supporters at the federal level sought to include fire-safe cigarette provisions in a subsequent tobacco bill in 2009, but through NFPA advocacy efforts at the state level, we prevailed with a more reasoned approach. By 2009, most states had passed fire-safe cigarette legislation, and we were concerned that federal preemption would slow implementation at the state level and complicate enforcement. The resulting law did not preempt state laws relating to fire-safety standards.
NFPA plays a supporting role in the reauthorization of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Programs, as it does with other governmental initiatives that become legislation, regulation, or policy. Last year, NFPA, along with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Volunteer Fire Council, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and the Congressional Fire Service Institute, suggested revisions to the programs. It involved many negotiation sessions to reach consensus. The bill to reauthorize the grant programs was crafted shortly thereafter, passed by the subcommittee, and submitted to the full Committee on Science and Technology in the House of Representatives, which passed it shortly thereafter. A number of amendments were added to the initial proposal, but the House version of the bill passed in mid-November. Still, passage by the Senate is not a given, and hard-fought revisions may be deleted. That’s why it’s important for our office to keep the committee staff from both congressional bodies abreast of our priorities and encourage them to use NFPA as the premier source for fire, safety, and security information.
We also provide a more formal opportunity to address prominent issues such as climate change. In July, our office held a congressional briefing with the American Geophysical Union and the Congressional Hazards Caucus Alliance on climate change and wildfires. Michele Steinberg, NFPA’s Firewise Communities Support Manager, spoke about the Firewise program.
Representatives from the National Institute of Standards and Technology Building and Fire Research Lab, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina also presented, offering a balance of science and policy suggestions to an audience of congressional staffers. Planting these seeds is critical; subsequent legislation cites the Firewise program.
Even the current pursuit of health care reform presents opportunities for NFPA to influence policy. Our office encourages and facilitates federal agency adoption of the latest edition of NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, now required by the Veterans Administration and the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code. A major update effort is underway at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which requires that all health care facilities that receive federal funding meet the requirements of NFPA 101.
Recently, our office also worked with the IAFF on the Fire Fighter Fatality Reduction Act, which calls for a survey of fire department compliance with national consensus standards for firefighter health and safety. The bill eventually became a successful amendment to the Fire Grants Reauthorization Act of 2009.
Building influence in Washington and establishing relationships with decision makers takes time and resources. Last year, we were fortunate to expand our staff: Shameka Wiley, our secretary and office manager, began assisting me last February, and Marnie Suss joined us as a government affairs representative in June. As I write, our legislative log includes 95 bills from the 111th Congress. Not all of these will move forward, but others will proceed quickly. Regardless, it means a lot of work and a lot of opportunities.
Happily, there is increased interest and federal willingness to defer to national voluntary codes and standards if they satisfy the ambitious goals of the new Administration. Our goal is to ensure that 2010 contains plenty of opportunities to reinforce the connection between good federal policy and NFPA’s mission.
Nancy McNabb is NFPA's director of Government Affairs.