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Interviews with USFA Leadership

Posted: Jan. 20, 2022

On the first episode of The USFA Podcast, U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell and Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator Tonya Hoover discuss agency programs and their vision for the future.

the USFA Podcast

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Welcome to The USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I'm your host Teresa Neal, fire program specialist.

At USFA we're dedicated to supporting and strengthening the fire and emergency medical services. As part of the mission, we launched a podcast to start a conversation about fire prevention and life safety. As with all conversations, this one starts with introduction, so hello. We're USFA, part of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA. USFA was created in 1974, soon after “America Burning” exposed the need for increased fire preparedness and prevention. So that's who we are, but do you know what we do?

When most people think of USFA, they probably think of the National Fire Academy, the largest federal fire training and education center in the country. We are incredibly proud of the work done at the academy, but USFA is so much more. Our work is centered around 4 stars; data, research, prevention and education. As part of this podcast, we will introduce you to some of the impressive leaders at USFA who are helping reduce fire deaths through data collection, public education, research and training. So join us as we share stories about our work.

Our first guest is Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator, Tonya Hoover. Chief Hoover started at USFA in May 2017 as a superintendent in the National Fire Academy after a successful career in both local and state government. In January 2020, she was appointed deputy U.S. fire administrator and served as acting U.S. fire administrator for 20 months after the administration transitioned.

Thank you for being with us Chief Hoover. Welcome to The USFA Podcast.
Oh, thank you so much. This is very exciting.
This is our first podcast. You are our very first guest.
Oh, that's exciting.
I know. I wanted to get a perspective of someone who has been in the fire service, who has a very successful career in the government for the fire service, and then now with us at USFA. So if you could just explain the 4 stars and how they comprise all of USFA's work.
Well, that's a great question and I have to say that I think that our 4 stars are not widely known on the outside. We at USFA know our 4 stars, but I think as a whole for the fire service and our allied professionals, they don't know our 4 stars. Let's break down the 4 stars for a moment.
Tonya Hoover
Tonya Hoover, Deputy U.S. Fire Administrator

So, when you look at our emblem, as you know, that we affectionately call it “Hotfoot,” there are 4 stars above the eagle's head. Those 4 stars mean something, and they come right out of our legislation, or right out of the public law that establishes the USFA. One star stands for fire data collection. So I'm just going to say data collection, because we collect so much more data than just fire, because fire and EMS do so much more than just fire. We do EMS, we do all hazards, all incidents; you call, we haul, that's all.

One of the stars represents public fire education. Again, let's move away from the fire and talk about public education, because we provide that education not just in fire prevention and safety, but also in other hazards, other disasters, other situations. We do research, fire research. We are actively engaged and involved with many partners that are doing fire research for operations, for training, and then also for messaging for the public.

We also are responsible, and this is probably the star that most people are familiar with is our fire service training and education. Many, many people are familiar with the National Fire Academy. When I say many people are familiar with National Fire Academy, unfortunately we'd like more people to be familiar with the National Fire Academy. But what a lot of folks may miss with that is the National Fire Academy is one division among 3 divisions of the USFA.

Right, and that's one of the reasons why we wanted to really focus on those 4 stars because our academy is extraordinary, but we're so much more than that. If they know us, they know the academy, but they don't know all the other things that we do here.
Absolutely. When folks talk about the National Fire Academy, I've heard a lot of folks say the United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy. Well, the National Fire Academy is the USFA, and it is one of those essential 4 stars. So, we are engaged in many, many, many aspects of what fire, EMS — and again, EMS is a critical piece and part of what we do at USFA. It's in our public law. We do training and education. We provide public information on that. We collect data concerning EMS. But we want folks to understand that we have a broad role, a broad responsibility, a broad connection to fire, EMS and allied professionals; architects, engineers, other researchers, et cetera.
Yep, for all the coding.
Absolutely. I'm a big code development person. I believe in current codes and standards and how they can work for communities. Again, how do we get there? We get there through data collection, we get there through education, we get there through research and we get there through training. So every aspect of what we do really ties into those 4 stars.
Well, thank you so much for explaining that to our viewers. I know you're happy to have our new administrator on board.
Absolutely. I am thrilled to have Dr. Lori, as we affectionately call her here, on board as our fire administrator. She hit the ground running. We are all running. It's a great pace and tempo, and it's very exciting. I think for the fire and EMS, as well as our allied professionals, they too should be very excited about what's happening at the USFA, what Dr. Moore also brings to the USFA and how they can engage with the USFA.

The future is bright. There is so much going on here. When I came to the USFA as the superintendent of the NFA, I didn't realize how much was going on. What's unfortunate is that folks at that local and state level don't have the opportunity to really engage with what's going on here. So I want to encourage folks: call, email, write letters, stay engaged.

Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about the Fire Administration? About our future?
The future is bright. There is so much going on here. When I came to the USFA as the superintendent of the NFA, I didn't realize how much was going on. What's unfortunate is that folks at that local and state level don't have the opportunity to really engage with what's going on here. So I want to encourage folks: call, email, write letters, stay engaged. There is an incredible amount of information here. We know that so much happens beyond the walls of the USFA. I want folks to feel better about reaching out and contacting us and having this relationship with the USFA. I want folks to see the USFA as being a strong partner with the work that they're doing in their communities and in their states.
Absolutely. I think for them to understand that yes, we are the government, but we are also your friend. We want to know the things that you are facing on the ground, because if we know about those, then we have at this level have a national overview, and if you're experiencing it, other people are also experiencing it. We have people with great minds that are able to formulate some plans like, how do we start addressing this now before it becomes out of control?

Absolutely. In the past, maybe we were a little behind the curve on some things. We've made up for that. Folks are running. We're not walking anymore with different topic areas. Everyone knows when you get further into government, the bigger government gets, sometimes the more difficult it is to pivot within that environment.

What I like to say is it's an opportunity to use more relationships or to engage at other relationships. What Dr. Moore-Merrell brings to the table is those relationships and those connections. Over the next few months, over the next year, we'll see some different things taking place, and I encourage folks to be engaged in those.

Well, thank you very much. Thanks for being our very, very first interview.
I know there's a lot going on here, and I'm really excited about these podcasts and the opportunities to connect.

Great. Thank you so much.

I'd like to introduce Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell. She was appointed our U.S. fire administrator by President Joseph Biden on Oct. 25, 2021. Prior to her appointment, Dr. Lori served as president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute, which she founded after retiring from the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Thank you, Dr. Lori, for taking time to speak with us and welcome to USFA's first podcast.

Well, good morning. I am thrilled to be here. This is an exciting venture. USFA is really stepping out and I'm thrilled.
Lori Moore-Merrell
Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, U.S. Fire Administrator
I have my first question for you is what first inspired you to work in the fire service?

Oh my, that's making me go back for a bit of time. Actually, I grew up just outside of Nashville and I stayed in Tennessee for college. During my undergrad, I decided to go to paramedic school at night. Well, just after I graduated from my undergrad there in Memphis and was heading, as I said, to medical school, the Memphis Fire Department was hiring. I did apply and was hired as one of the first women actually in Memphis; the sixth woman hired there back in 1987. I went on the job there. So it was just happenstance. Things line up for a reason I think sometimes, and timing is everything.

I spent 7 years on the job there as a fire paramedic and then was recruited to the IAFF, where I spent the next 26 years doing a lot of things at the IAFF. I was hired as the EMS specialist. I really stayed in that EMS venue for a long time, building up resources at the IAFF in the EMS arena, and really maintained that. And then going into research, finishing my masters in epidemiology, learning to do systematic study of populations, that sort of thing, and then finished my doctorate there in performance metrics, and mainly performance metrics of systems, which is what we have, right, that's what the fire service is.

That's a bit of my background, how I got to where I am right now. Again, I think things line up for a reason. You have things put in your path I believe; people, events, circumstances that sort of lead you where you're supposed to be. I'm thrilled to be where I'm sitting right now with the opportunity and hope to make it better than I found it.

Yes. Right. What is something that you wish more people knew about the United States Fire Administration?
The first day I come in and I find out there's 120 employees at USFA. Some of the things that I think are most relevant are, of course, the people and the effort that is made here. There are some very passionate people here who want to make a difference and they are, but nobody knows about it. And I think that's important. The capability we have here. Who knew we had a recording studio for podcasts, and a whole entire video capability for shooting webcasts and for shooting videos? So the capability that's here and the talent of the people, I think is something I want everybody to know is we want to attract people who want to do these sorts of things to campus.

One of the most noble things I believe that anybody can do is to teach someone else what you know, to pass on your knowledge and capability. Those who learn from you are indebted to you. You've given them something of value. That's what I want people to know is this is an opportunity. For those in the fire service, who want to give back, this is a place that you can do that.

Certainly it's a great place for those who want to be involved in training the next generation. As I said, there's constant generation change, and those who want to participate in that. One of the most noble things I believe that anybody can do is to teach someone else what you know, to pass on your knowledge and capability. Those who learn from you are indebted to you. You've given them something of value. That's what I want people to know is this is an opportunity. For those in the fire service, who want to give back, this is a place that you can do that.

Those are just a few. There's so many more right, but a few of the things I want people to know.

Thank you. What is your perspective on the role of USFA?

Wow. Okay. The role of USFA, I always go back to the mission. From day 1, when I was sworn in, I cited the mission and that we were going to be a mission-driven organization under my leadership. I tell the crew every day, regardless who I'm talking with, whether we're talking about budget, whether we're talking about a new program or continuing program, or having an evaluation, the question is, is it mission-driven? Is it related to the mission? If it isn't, then we're going to likely stop doing it. If we need to do more, because we are not doing something related to the mission, then we're going to have something new.

For me, it is about being mission-driven and it is about being relevant and making sure that we are helping the fire service have its capability and the capacity they need to serve. One of the things I see in the mission of the USFA is to strengthen and support, which those 2 words are in our mission, our stakeholders, which is the fire service, fire and EMS. And given that, if we help assure that they have the capability to respond, and they have the training they need, the people they need, the capacity of resources, if we can help them with that, then it may be that FEMA never has to respond because our local emergency responders handled the situation.

Now, the level of disasters that we're having today, obviously climate change, all of those things that are really driving like we just saw with these massive tornadoes in December, we have to have FEMA respond often because it is so far beyond the capability of the local responders to handle it. But if we can make sure that they can have that first response, do as much rescue as possible in these moments to curtail the bad events that are happening, so that there's a much more viable situation when FEMA resources arrive, that's our role. That's what USFA is to do. So that's my perspective, that we have to be mission-driven, we have to be assertive and we have to lead.

What do you see is your vision for the future?
Vision is something I hope that everyone at USFA takes a moment to quietly reflect, because in order to have vision, you've got to know where you've been, and what we have and where we need to go. What we need to do, I believe, is to certainly respect the traditions that we've had here at USFA, but it is time to innovate, it is time to modernize, it is time to enhance our capability, and for me, status quo is not acceptable.
We need to, like you said, look at our programs. Is this mission-driven? It's not. Okay. We love it. It's nice. It's fun. We're not doing it anymore.

Exactly. Yes, absolutely. You're spot on. Could not have said that better. That is exactly what we have to do. So looking at our training, modernizing what we're doing. We've done some of that, COVID-driven by the way. COVID really put us in a place where we had no choice but to go online. So we've got a new learning management system that was in progress before I arrived.

I've already elevated one of our wildland experts so that he is reporting directly to me. I already have a policy expert on wildland. She is a rock star. She is reporting directly to me. So we are engaging wildland directly a lot from the data perspective, but also from community risk reduction, research, delivering a knowledge-based and fact-based science, working with NIST for example, to our standards and codes.

So data is something we're going to do better here. We are going to modernize and innovate this data system. This legacy data system, God bless it, but we're going to have a memorial service very soon. We are going to maintain it for the next little bit, until we can stand up a new system. We are going to stand up a new cloud-based system with a much more streamlined data set. So that means we're going to be rewriting what is today is NFIRS 5. That's going to no longer exist. We will be building a new, relevant data standard with data elements that are streamlined, that are must have, not the superfluous or nice-to-know information. What that does is allow us to get quality and quantity data.

About 82%1 of fire departments today even contribute data. Well, I want 100%. So we're going to streamline. We're going to leverage technology where we can to capture data rather than collect it. And I hope those 2 words are resonating, because if I can get data from another data system, why do I have a firefighter entering it?

24,491 of the approximately 30,000 fire departments reported 28,144,835 incidents through NFIRS in 2020.

The other thing is our campus. Kudos to our maintenance and support crew because they have been on a mission for a while to make sure this campus goes green, and it is impressive. We already have at least one building that's completely off the electrical grid. We're solar. This is exciting. USFA is one of the largest contributors in the entire federal government to the green initiative that can help with climate change. I want us to be a player in that realm. That's part of the Biden administration. I want us to be recognized and to understand that we are a player. We are trying to make a difference.

Those are things that will continue to be part of my vision during my tenure here.

How does the USFA plan to achieve all of these visions?

So how do we make this happen? I'm asking every program manager. We're going to be evaluating every program. I want to evaluate every position here, because honestly, I see a lot of position titles, but I have no idea what they do. Like I said, there's 119, 120 people who work here. I don't know what they do. That's a problem. So we're going to address that problem.

I want to make sure that people are where they can be effective and efficient. If you are not effective in your position, we are going to help that. We are going to either get training, or we're going to realign. We need people firing on all cylinders if we're going to make this happen. We're part of a team, and I want everybody to be part of that team. So embracing and making sure that everybody is in their own hearts being fulfilled.

There's a lot of passionate people here. They want to make a difference, and I want them to have a real opportunity to do that. And so opening those doors, making sure people are where they are with their skill set, their talents, or where they want to be. If they want training, like I said, we're going to figure out how to get it. Those are the kinds of things that I think will help this vision along.

One of the other things that we're doing right now, as you know, it's budget-building time. Now the unfortunate part of that is that we're working on the 2024 budget, which shocked me when I came in. I said, “Excuse me. I'm doing what?”

So this is a little bit of a problem. Long-term planning; we have to present our budget proposals, but some of the budget proposals, for example, we're bringing up an EMS section. Now we've got EMS curriculum here on campus; that's not the same thing. A true EMS section here under National Fire Programs. We have to understand the fire service's role in EMS much better from the national level. The fire service is the national fire and EMS service, honestly. We are going to propose some changes there.

We're also going to look at certainly DEI situations, so diversity, equity and inclusion. I think the fire service is just on the tipping point of really making some change culturally. And so as we as fire service leaders who want to change the culture. One of the things that I always say is to change culture, we've got to first change behavior. So having no tolerance for psychologically unsafe workplaces. We worry a lot about our safety when we are at work. We've got to begin as fire service leaders to talk about psychological safety as well. I want to have classes for those leaders who want to have that opportunity to learn “how do I do this?” How do I actually begin with the right soft skills to change culture?

I think that we are just on the tipping point and I want USFA to have a role in that. Our superintendent, Eriks Gabliks is all over this. He is ready for this. So we'll be putting in certainly budget proposals. This is also an initiative under the FEMA administrator and President Biden. I'm excited about the opportunities for long-range planning and vision to follow through.

As we're closing up, I just want to say, is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself, about your plans, how you see the fire service now, the state of it?

Well, yeah, we have a lot to do. I will say that knowing the fire service, as we talked about early on, you have to stay focused. Sometimes it's repetitive what you have to do, but we have to stay the course. We have to be in lockstep with our national fire service organizations, and they with us so that we can accomplish things that we need to accomplish during this administration.

I really want to pay a great compliment to our FEMA administrator, Deanne Criswell. She has opened every door we need. She, from a fire service background herself, is a rock star leader, and she gets it. She said to me many times, “Lori, this is a partnership, and so tell me what you need.” Just like me, she wants to address those things that matter, where we can make change. We certainly want to leave FEMA and the USFA better than we found it. I think that is the overall mission.

Well, thank you, Dr. Lori. I can tell you that we're inspired at USFA to have you as our leader. I've spoken to many people, well, through Teams, because we are not seeing each other, and they're just really excited about our next couple of years and the foundations that you're going to build for us, so that even when administrations change one way or another, that we have that strong foundation. Once we have those very strong foundations, we can just keep building no matter what.

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, letting us hear from you about your vision. It's going to be a great ride I think.

Thank you so much. Thanks for having me and let's get started, right?
That's right. Thank you so much.
Thank you.

1 This number was updated in the transcript to reflect participation in 2020 but has not been updated in the audio version.

Thank you for listening to The USFA Podcast and thank you to our guests, Chief Tonya Hoover and Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, for joining us today. We hope that you enjoyed learning more about who we are and what we do.

We also hope that you will keep listening. Look for new episodes every third Thursday of the month. Subscribe to our show on Apple or Google Podcast. You can join the conversation about fire safety by emailing your questions and sharing your stories to That's

Next month, we'll be talking about the National Fire Incident Reporting System and the importance of data collection. Until then, you can visit us at for more information. Thank you.