You won’t find too many emergency responder organizations convening on the gutsy topics being discussed at this week’s 4th NFPA Responder Forum in Alabama.
During his opening remarks today, NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley told the crowd of more than 130 attendees from 15 leading first responder organizations that when he first heard about this year’s plans to tackle the issues of bullying, hazing, racial bias, cultural acceptance, and gender equality during the 3-day program – his first reaction was, “that’s an ambitious agenda.”
Since its debut in 2015, the Responder Forum has taken on new risks and zeroed in on the emerging challenges that emergency responders are facing on the front line. Previous Forums have covered smart firefighting, civil unrest, drones, contamination control, energy storage systems, active shooters, and occupational health and safety – all timely topics that either put people and property at risk or provide solutions to address long-standing issues.
This year the Forum is taking things a little further.
The firefighters, chiefs, marshals, trainers, investigators, EMS professionals and others in attendance have been recognized as forward-thinkers, and as such are considering content that some might find unfamiliar and uncomfortable. They are answering important questions such as – what is the modern day emergency response community doing to protect our firefighters, police and EMS professionals in the spaces where they work, day in and day out? What are we doing to ensure that the perception of the “brotherhood” that is so often touted by first responders, is in fact, relevant for all?
Pauley told the scholarship candidates, “It is up to all of us to ensure that each man and woman that dons the uniform feels that leadership has their back in the station, around the kitchen table, in the apparatus, and .”
Day 1 included presentations designed to help the attendees and the larger emergency response community take o difficult topics.
- USFA Deputy Fire Administrator Denis Onieal acknowledged and explained why the topics of inclusion, hazing, bullying, and LGBTQ awareness are complicated. The well-known fire authority referenced the New York Times best-seller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance in his remarks. He asked attendees “to resist the urge to be more tribal; to avoid retreating to comfortable corners.”
- NFPA Director of Internal Communications Mike Hazell asked the up-and-comers to take notice of behaviors, to emphasize the impact they are having in the workplace, and to have bold, thorough conversations with all personnel.
- Casey Grant, Executive Director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, spoke about the value that the Responder Forum has in the research community. Grant said, “Sharing your voices and stories is hugely important” as he and others look to provide behavioral benchmarks and best practices.
- Sara Janke, PhD, Director & Principal Investigator for the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research then entertained and enlightened the crowd with first responder statistics and stereotype observations. Janke said, “If firefighters are not motivated to report and rarely report, it is the equivalent of a “green light” for perpetrators within that culture.”
- Next, NFPA’s Senior Director of Public Education Andrea Vastis highlighted how stereotypes and unintentional bias can impact our behaviors. Vastis’ presentation drew spirited comments and questions from the audience, and prompted many follow up conversations after she left the stage.
- Finally, it was time for Ali Rothrock to share her powerful story. A volunteer firefighter, EMT, author (Where Hope Lives), mental health advocate and post-traumatic author from Pennsylvania, Rothrock silenced the audience as she recounted the physical, sexual and mental abuse that she experienced at a young age in firehouses. Her journey nearly broke her until she sought help for PTSD and began her new mission of helping others heal from harrowing events.
As promised, today’s Responder Forum was groundbreaking in a number of ways, but the hard work begins when these leaders break into work groups tomorrow and ultimately return to their respective stations to champion change.