The job of being your President has been quite rewarding but also extremely busy. With SPS 330 (Fire Department Safety and Health Standards), SPS 316 (Electrical Codes) and SPS 361 (Automatic Fire Sprinkler Exemptions) hitting the proverbial fan the stakes have become higher than ever. In addition, we are still dealing with the Recruitment and Retention Committee, the Wed- ding Barns and the Community EMT/Paramedic legislation. The reality is that none of us can be experts on everything and to be honest the code issues are not my strength. However, we are blessed with subject matter experts such as Dave Bloom, Steve Howard, Kevin Bierce and Gregg Cleveland who can even make me feel smart.
The problem we currently face is that DSPS (Department of Safety and Professional Services) has lost their way. The Department's mission statement says that the mission of the Department of Safety and Professional Services is to promote economic growth and stability while protecting the citizens of Wisconsin as designated by statute. Unfortunately, rolling back the safeguards of electric and sprinkler legislation while ignoring the risk faced by untrained firefighters reveals an organization that has forgotten or is blatantly disregarding its mission.
Protecting the citizens of Wisconsin should be the measure that DSPS uses to determine whether a legislative act is appropriate or not. Economic growth and security are also important but only when the safety of the citizens, including its firefighters, are first taken into consideration. However, the Department has consistently demonstrated a disregard for the safety of its citizens by attempting to decrease their level of protection through the proposed removal of the requirements for electrical, the proposal to decrease the life safety factor in buildings by increasing the number of units or square feet in multifamily units where sprinklers are required, and based on the Department's refusal to move the advisory committee's recommendations forward in the case of SPS 330.
As a result of these provocative actions on the part of DSPS, the State Fire Chiefs found themselves in the position where there seemed to be no option other than to resist these proposed legislations. This was done on many levels including partnering with other groups who had similar interests, obtaining a legal viewpoint and perhaps most importantly by flooding the hearings with uniformed chiefs and firefighters who were willing to respectfully demonstrate through their appearance and their voices that the fire service was upset and they weren't going to allow DSPS to move forward without a fight.
The hearings were held at Eau Claire, Appleton and Madison on consecutive days. While I don't especially like the driving I determined that I would attend all three hearings. The result was nothing short of amazing. Each hearing took on a life of its own and each was jam packed with firefighters and chiefs who wanted to have their voices heard. The Milwaukee County Chiefs had a meeting scheduled for the day of the Appleton hearing, so they cancelled their meeting and attended the hearing instead. This was only one of many stories that were told as chiefs traveled from all over the state to attend.
Thanks in large part to our efforts, the Governor pulled the changes to the sprinkler legislation off the table. While the outcome of the electric legislation (expansion of AFCI and GFCI use) remains unknown, the Governor has been placed in a position where he will have to go against his own fire service experts and knowingly place our citizens at risk if he allows this to move forward. This seems like a losing proposition for the tradeoff of $240 that will be saved by a builder on a 2,000 square foot home, but at this point we can only await the outcome.
In the meantime, I want to thank all the Chiefs who participated. Whether you attended and didn't speak, attended and spoke, sent someone in your place or recorded your opposition on record, each of you played a significant role. This is not the end of the story but instead is the beginning. There will be times each year when the leadership calls on you to mobilize and attend hearings. You may not be able to attend all of the requests but you must participate whenever possible. If you don't attend then you might as well send a note saying you don't care. While that probably isn't true it will nevertheless be interpreted that way by the people who are counting the attendees.
I didn't understand this before I got involved at the State Chiefs level and as a result I was guilty of being one of the chiefs who didn't attend. Part of it was a fear of having to speak about issues that I didn't have a firm grasp of and part of it was a lack of understanding about how things worked politically. I used to tell people that I'm not a politician, I'm a Fire Chief, as if that excused my behavior. Little did I realize that you fill out a card when you attend a hearing and on it you state whether you want to speak or not. If you don't indicate that you want to speak then you don't speak. It's as easy as that.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that politicians really do care about how many show up to register their opinion. The reality is, whether we like it or not, when we take the job of a Fire Chief we also become the voice of our community for fire service issues. As a result, when the State Chiefs ask for a turnout at a hearing it's important that we learn about the issues and reach out to colleagues or even one of the State Fire Chiefs Board of Directors when we need more information. No one is going to look down on you for trying to understand what the issue is. Then, it’s even more important that we do whatever we can to respond to the request for support.
In closing, as Gregg Cleveland nears his retirement date (Congrats Gregg!) and more of us move in that direction, it’s a legitimate concern as to who will fill the void? Some of you are like me in that this isn’t your forte but for others this is right up their alley. That’s where succession planning comes into play with the State Chiefs. It’s critical that as talented individuals retire we have new talent stepping into the role that these people once played. That’s the way a healthy organization functions and it’s even more important when that organization represents the interests of every Fire Chief in the State of Wisconsin.
If you have questions you can reach me by phone at 414-840-7294 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be Safe and Do Great Things!
Chief Rob Ugaste
President, Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs’ Association