Philip Stittleburg, the new chair of NFPA’s Board of Directors, on the organization’s goals, his plans to advocate for the nation’s volunteer fire service, and more
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012
Philip Stittleburg’s small-town persona is apparent almost as soon as you start talking to him — his tone is friendly, his laughs are hearty, and he appreciates the importance of a meaningful “thank you.”
But there’s also an edge to him, one honed by 36 years spent prosecuting criminal offenders as assistant district attorney in Vernon County, Wisconsin. Stittleburg retired from that position in 2010, and now runs a private law practice in LaFarge, Wisconsin. He also serves as chief of the LaFarge Fire Department, which protects 3,000 residents scattered across 135 square miles. He’s been with the volunteer department for four decades, having served as chief for much of that time. Making the tough decisions — whether in the courtroom or at the scene of a fire — seems to be a personality trait Stittleburg, 64, can’t shake.
The intensity of both jobs has prepped him for his role as the newly elected chair of NFPA’s Board of Directors. Having served on the board since 1998 (minus a two-year hiatus), Stittleburg says he is ready to lead that body in its efforts to achieve organization-wide goals, as well as a few objectives of his own. Stittleburg also chairs the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), and he is eager to capitalize on the synergy between NFPA and the NVFC to address volunteer firefighter issues, including a decline in new volunteer firefighter recruits.
Stittleburg spoke with NFPA Journal about his goals as the new board chair, issues affecting volunteer firefighters, and more.
Why was it important for you to maintain your role with the LaFarge Fire Department while working as an attorney?
The fire service gets in your blood, there’s no doubt about it. I also found that there are similarities between being a fireground commander and being in the courtroom prosecuting a case.
You have to make a lot of different decisions very quickly. Some of those decisions turn out to be wrong, and you’re going to have to figure out how to adjust to them. You’re constantly under pressure to make the right moves.
What commonalities exist between NFPA and NVFC?
There’s a lot of synergy out there that is just so encouraging to me. NVFC promotes NFPA’s Fire Prevention Week (FPW). Both organizations have worked on the Coalition for Fire-Safe Cigarettes and the Fire Sprinkler Initiative. NVFC is a coalition member for the new Coalition for Current Safety Codes [a joint effort initiated by NFPA and the International Code Council that advocates for the adoption of current building, electrical, and life safety codes]. There’s a lot of cross-pollination that I’m delighted we can take advantage of.
How might this synergy address challenges facing the volunteer fire service?
You can describe a whole array of challenges for the volunteer fire service, but you can distill them down to two categories: time and money. Of the two challenges, the greater one is time. The demands on time are coming at a very interesting point in our history. What we’re seeing is the American worker spending more and more hours at their job, which is contrary to what was being predicted 30 or 40 years ago. Back then [it was predicted that] automation was going to simplify everyone’s life. We’d have four-day workweeks. It didn’t happen. We’re seeing greater demands for people at their jobs. Lumped on top of that, we’re seeing a decline in the economy, which is forcing people to take second jobs. The net result is volunteers with less discretionary time. Concurrently, their work as firefighters is placing greater demands on their available time, because the role of the fire service — career and volunteer — is expanding.
In what way?
We’re into all sorts of activities that 30 or 40 years ago we didn’t do — emergency medical services, Hazmat, the list goes on and on. So you have a greater demand for your services, a greater demand for training to provide those services. At the same time, you have less time to spend doing it. It’s like the perfect storm.
What’s the solution?
We get smarter about how we do our recruiting. The volunteer fire service has what I like to call the Marine Corps mentality. I do not disparage the Marine Corps by saying this, since I have nothing but the highest regard for the Marine Corps. My point is that every single person entering the Corps is going to qualify as a rifleman. You might turn out to be a pilot, but if you’re in the Marine Corps, you’re going to be a rifleman. We have that same attitude with the volunteer fire service. If you want to join, you have to be a volunteer firefighter. When we do that, we immediately exclude a large segment of the population that wants to donate something to their department but doesn’t want to be a firefighter.
What are some tasks they could perform?
Whatever roles in which the fire department has a need. A retired teacher, for example, might want to help out during FPW doing promotions or talking to schoolchildren on fire safety. A mechanic might want to help out with maintenance. A certified public accountant might help prepare a budget. I think that part of our solution is to shift some of the nonoperational responsibilities we place on volunteer firefighters to people who aren’t firefighters but would very much like to assume these tasks. If that happens, I think we can solve the time crunch.
How do these issues tie in to an apparent decline in volunteer firefighters?
Based on NFPA reports, particularly the U.S. Fire Department Profile Through 2010, what we’re seeing for the third straight year is a pretty significant decline in the number of volunteer firefighters. I’m reading into that a number of things: my suspicion is that what we’re seeing with the national volunteer fire service is an aging population. We’re seeing older firefighters retire. What we’re not seeing is an equivalent number of young firefighters entering the volunteer ranks to make up that difference. That presents us with some pretty significant challenges.
Trying to figure out how to recruit younger people — what interests them, what motivates them, what keeps them here — is a challenge we have to meet. What motivates the 50 year old might not motivate an 18 year old to join. One of the ways we’re getting there is through NVFC’s National Junior Firefighter Program, which has seen some pretty significant success [in preparing teens for a potential career in this field by learning from active firefighters]. The first vice chair of the NVFC is a chief in North Carolina and has developed an active junior firefighter program there. Ninety percent of people that join this program have joined his fire department. This sort of early recruiting really does have a positive effect.
What other methods are attracting younger volunteers?
Social media is where we’re trying to concentrate our efforts. That brings with it a number of challenges — not only how to use social media to contact potential members and generate that interest, but also how it can be used effectively by current members. You have someone in their 20s tweeting about how great it is to be a firefighter, and that’s great. On the other hand, if you have a firefighter taking pictures at the scene and posting them on Facebook, that can be a problem. We’re still feeling our way in terms of how to use social media in a way that’s positive while maintaining the necessary control over it so that department members understand that you’re not free to put out any information or pictures you’d like that are related to calls or incidents. Trying to develop the policy of how to regulate social media with current members while at the same time trying to use it as a recruitment tool for potential members — we’re still in the infancy stage on that one.
How can NFPA assist with efforts affecting volunteers?
NFPA has been one of the advocates in promoting the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) program as well as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant programs. What you really need to keep volunteers going are two things: decent equipment to work with and the occasional “thank you.” AFG and SAFER go a long way toward providing decent equip for personnel, but there’s also an element of “thank you” in that. When you can provide volunteers with new equipment, they see that as a community saying thank you. With SAFER, some of those funds are set aside for volunteer recruitment. NFPA, along with the other major fire service organizations, has been advocating for AFG and SAFER for a number of years.
What other NFPA goals are you working towards?
Our participation in the solution to the wildland fire problem is important. We made it one of our corporate goals at NFPA last year to address this issue, so I’m pleased that we’re following through with that goal. I think we identified the issue at the right time. Also, I want to continue to capitalize on our affiliations with other national organizations that are also addressing this problem.
Another one of our 2012 corporate goals involves NFPA 1561, Emergency Services Incident Management System. We’d like to develop a curriculum to reinforce how the standard can be used to inform command officers of their responsibility for all incident safety. The reason I promoted that is because in every single report you read on firefighter death investigations, one of things that’s invariably mentioned as a contributing factor [of death or injury] is a lack of fireground control — either failure to recognize dangerous conditions or failure to properly account for and manage personnel on the scene. I was excited that the board agreed to promote the use of NFPA 1561 in a way that will enable the fire service to improve incident scene safety.
It seems as if you get the same type of excitement while volunteering.
I tell people that what really motivates volunteers is payday. People look at me and say, “Payday?” When you work for free, “thank you” is payday. When you cut somebody’s kid out of a crashed vehicle, and the parent comes up to you and says, “Thank you for saving my kid’s life.” Or when you save someone’s house from burning, and someone says, “Thank you for saving every treasure I have here on Earth.” You can really work hard for a long time for that kind of payday.
— Interview conducted by Fred Durso, Jr.