Denis Onieal started his career in the fire service in 1971. If there is one thing the National Fire Academy’s esteemed superintendent has learned over the last 42 years, it’s this: Change is inevitable. “It really doesn’t matter what profession,” he says, “but without a doubt that tenant holds especially true for those in the fire service.”
“Take a fire chief of 1970 and put him in charge of a department today and the only thing that’s the same is the trucks are still red,” Onieal said Monday after wrapping up his session at Fire-Rescue Med titled, “The Future of the Fire Service.”
“We have to deal with change. It’s like the old expression goes, if you don’t like change you’re going to hate extinction.”
Onieal, who has been honored countless times for his leadership in the fire service, including the Lifetime Achievement Award from Fire Engineering in 2007, discussed how today’s solutions won’t be able to fix tomorrows problems. New challenges, however, will bring new opportunities.
Onieal raised several issues during the hour-long session that could all play significant roles in how the fire service evolves in the coming years.
An aging population, with baby boomers requiring more medical calls; building construction, which poses new threats to firefighters during fire suppressions; the media age, where every wrong move a public servant makes will be posted on YouTube within minutes.
“Training is another area that will continue to develop,” Onieal said. “With the advent of online technology, students are using Internet-based tools. The challenge is going to be in assessing how that knowledge acquired through digital means translates into practical use,” he said.
“To think the fire service is not going to be affected by all of this is to deny reality,” Onieal said. “The future will be different. Not easier, not harder, but different. It’s on us to adapt to the changes or someone else will.”