The View from Washington
A conversation with Ernest Mitchell, Jr., the new U.S. Fire Administrator, on his career, his vision for the Fire Administration, coping with budget cuts, his concerns for the fire service, and more
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012
Late last year, Ernest Mitchell, Jr. received Senate confirmation to head the United States Fire Administration (USFA). He succeeded acting U.S. Fire Administrator Glenn Gaines, who took over when Kelvin Cochrane stepped down in 2010.
Mitchell, 63, is a native of Buffalo, New York, and grew up in Compton, California. He has been a member of the fire service for nearly 40 years, starting as a wildfire mapper with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He went on to become a fire marshal and battalion chief with the fire department in Compton, and he served as fire chief in the southern California communities of Monrovia and Pasadena. He was also president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) from 2003 to 2004.
What are you learning in your new job?
I’d been in and around the fire service for about 40 years and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the fire administration did, but I’m becoming more aware of its potential role within FEMA. With our increased awareness of the need to be prepared to respond to all hazards, and with FEMA being as active as it is, USFA is developing a larger role in this area.
In what way?
For instance, we're exploring the idea of the fire administration and some of our partners getting together to establish cadres of firefighting personnel to be deployed to large disasters as needed. It's been done in the past, but there hasn't been an organized effort to plan for it in advance. Similarly, we're looking at sharing the ESF-4 coordination function with the U.S. Forest Service for non-wildland fire events.
What role do you see standards like those developed by NFPA playing in that activity?
Standards are the foundation for our ability to put together coordinated and integrated responses in groups. They go hand in hand. I knew coming into the job that discussions were going on about fire service groups that could respond to disasters in groups of 300, 500, or even 1,000 or more. I knew that there was discussion about more fire service involvement in the command structure under the national response framework. We have so many individual resources in the country that are doing good things, and the key is to connect the dots and pull people together to work on the same issues and problems. Standards can help us make that happen.
How do you see USFA’s role evolving in wildland/urban fires?
This idea of helping to coordinate the response is a good example — it’s in the early talking stages, but it’s one that we inside of FEMA are interested in pursuing. And we’ll continue to work with others like NFPA in the development of improvements, prevention, and mitigation measures to address issues like fuel management, defensible space, and water supply.
Are there other areas where you see the fire administration working with NFPA, like increasing the number of communities that require sprinklers in new one- and two-family homes?
I think the things we can do with NFPA are almost unlimited. We supply data supporting sprinklers, and we’ll continue to advocate for sprinklers because they save lives. We must continue to reach out to non-fire-service stakeholders at the local, county, and state levels and educate them about what would make their communities safer. There are things we can do to better inform local elected officials, non-governmental organizations, and others with local influence that would help them make more informed decisions.
What would you say to home builders who are opposed to sprinklers?
I would tell them factually that the evidence is clear that sprinklers save lives, and that ultimately they save money as well. Sometimes businesses hear that economic message a little better. So not only are sprinklers the right thing to do, they’re also a good business move, too.
What’s happening with the current congressional reauthorization of the fire administration?
At this point the conversation is still preliminary. We sit down and discuss where we see strengths in what we’ve been able to achieve with our strategic plan, and where we see gaps, and we talk about all of that with congressional staffers. We don’t know yet how it will be received by Congress.
The last authorization, four years ago, included cuts to the USFA budget. How is the administration coping with that?
I read some years ago that working in the public sector and public services is like climbing a mountain that you never reach the top of. But our mission doesn’t change. We have to assess what our priorities are and focus on those, based on the dollars that are authorized for our use. You’ve heard the cliches about work ing smarter. For us, that means working more with partners and other stakeholders.
Does the National Fire Academy factor into this?
It’s not so much doing things different as it is expanding what we already do at the Academy, which is very highly regarded. I’d like to see the physical plant expanded so we could train more people and have more people on campus, and I’d like to expand what we can do technologically.
Even though they cost money?
Even though they cost money. If funds do become available, we want to be prepared.
Why did you become a firefighter?
I was maybe 21 and going to school to become an engineer, and I was working at the same time. I decided to get married, and I felt like I needed a more solid job than the one I had. So I took an engineering aide exam for the County of Los Angeles and got hired. I was assigned to the Los Angeles County Fire Department headquarters — my first real exposure to the fire service. The chief officers would ask me if I’d ever thought about being a firefighter. At first I thought, no. My wife’s reaction was that it was too dangerous. So I put the idea off for a while. But I was responding to wildland fires then, as a wildland fire mapper. We’d drive the fire line or ride in helicopters and map the fires. I talked more and more to the chiefs, and I finally decided it was time for a career change. I started taking fire science courses and firefighter exams. Fortunately, it seemed that my values and those of the fire service matched up. It became more than a job. More than a career, even.
What steps can USFA take to improve firefighter health and safety?
We should continue to support the organizations that are directly involved, like the Fallen Firefighter Foundation, the IAFF, the IAFC, and everyone else. We’ve raised the consciousness among firefighters, about getting regular comprehensive physicals and dealing with health issues before they become real problems — most of the losses in the fire service are heart- and respiratory-system-related, so it’s about exercise and nutrition. But I also recall a fire department in southern California addressing these kinds of issues back in the late 1970s. Just a couple weeks ago, someone told me about the same kind of program that was launched in his department in just the past year or so. It was a new program back in the 70s, and it’s a new program now. That tells me we still have a lot of work to do. Even so, we’ve seen reductions in line-of-duty deaths over the last three years.
Are those reductions a result of some of the programs recently launched to reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths?
I’m encouraged, but I’m cautious at the same time — three years isn’t a very long time. But it seems like people are now aware that the number can be reduced. More firefighters are wearing seatbelts, which is very important — vehicle accidents used to account for 25 percent of fire service losses, and we’ve seen a significant decline in injuries and deaths due to vehicle accidents. Anecdotally, it’s all very encouraging. I think fire service leadership has to seize this moment and continue to emphasize the need for firefighters to be safety conscious.
Why wouldn’t a firefighter buckle up en route to an emergency?
One of the things that makes the fire service strong is the problem-solving, action-oriented mindset that so many firefighters have: that desire to help, to take action, to do what’s necessary. Someone told me years ago that a strength overdone can become a weakness, and I think there’s some of that going on here — a person doesn’t buckle up because they think for some reason it’ll slow them down. The Everyone Goes Home program takes a different approach, and says “Think about your family, think about your loved ones, think about the idea that at the end of the day we all want to go home to our families. Is the risk I’m taking a life-saving risk, or not?” We just have to continue that conversation.
What’s happening with the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program and similar grant programs for the fire service?
All the federal grant programs are under scrutiny, and some have had critical cuts. Unfortunately, the budget reductions to AFG are going to result in significant numbers of grant requests being unmet.
I was told that in the last grant cycle there were about 16,000 applications received, but that fewer than 2,000 awards would be made. So that says that the need still clearly outweighs the available funding. NFPA and USFA have both worked on the needs assessments for the fire service, and the AFG programs tend to match the needs that have been established with the funding that’s been allocated, and with how the grant presentations are clearly made.
Are there any other new fire prevention initiatives you want to pursue while at USFA?
What I really want us to do as we get back into our strategic plan and update our goals and objectives is to examine the data and let that lead us. I suspect that there are some target populations and maybe some locations where we can further reduce the fire death and injury rate. We’ve made reductions in it, but we also know that there are segments of the population that are experiencing higher rates of loss, and we’ve identified those in the past with the elderly and the very young. I’d like to see if we can drill down and be even more specific, and see who we need to target, and where.
You talk a lot about crunching the numbers.
Gathering and analyzing the data is a major part of what we do. I’m interested in finding non-traditional organizations that can assist us in communicating our findings and recommendations to the public. We still lose more people annually to fire than all other disasters combined. I don’t know if people really realize that. I think that there may be organizations that can help us get the word out and deliver education if we can identify who they are.
— Interview conducted by NFPA Journal editor Scott Sutherland