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Podcast

A Look Back at 2022 and Priorities for 2023

A conversation with U.S. Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Posted: Jan. 19, 2023

On this episode, we recap 2022 accomplishments and discuss USFA priorities and initiatives for 2023.

The USFA Podcast

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Transcript

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the United States Fire Administration. I'm your host, Teresa Neal. This is our 13th episode. Over the past year, we've discussed some pretty important topics: COVID; diversity, equity and inclusion and behavioral health in the fire service; programs and initiatives at the U.S. Fire Administration; and firefighter health and safety.

But on our first episode, our U.S. fire administrator, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, discussed USFA's programs and her vision for the future, modernizing the National Fire Data System, as well as the NFA training, reevaluating our programs and realigning USFA. I wanted to bring her back to give us an update on USFA, talk about some of the exciting moments of 2022, and give us an idea of what we can look forward to in '23.

Teresa: So, thank you, Dr. Lori, for joining us again.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: It's my pleasure, Teresa. Thank you for having me.
Teresa: To say you hit the ground running is an understatement. You have traversed the United States, Canada and Europe over the past year. You've spearheaded new programs and helped USFA to develop stronger stakeholder relationships.
When I think back over the last year, I've been able to witness some of your peaks, I think. Not all of them, but I think about how you convened the Fire and Life Safety Communicators Initiative, you've started the NFIRS modernization, you're working on realigning USFA to better follow the 4 stars on our mission.
Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell
Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, U.S. Fire Administrator
You are one of the co-leaders for the Wildfire Commission. You did the first — ever since the inception of the U.S. Fire Administration — you did the U.S. Fire Administrator's Summit on Fire Prevention and Control, where we had leaders of major government organizations as well as the president to attend.
You also are working on the National Fire Service Strategy, and you just came back from Israel a couple weeks ago where you signed a memorandum of understanding with the Israeli Fire Service. So that's just the things that I have been able to witness — have been lucky enough to walk with you through some of those.
But can you tell us a little bit more about over this past year and what you see as the peaks when you look back?
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Yeah. Wow. That was quite a list. I didn't even remember all of those, so that was a great recollection there, Teresa. So, I guess for me, when we talked over a year ago, I talked about reassessing USFA right from the mission, and I said that we were going to be mission driven. And so, I think for the last year, everything we've done has really revolved around that: being mission driven and mission focused. And so, we did start with an evaluation of the legislation that actually established and enabled the USFA.
And based on that legislation, we have done many of the things that you just mentioned, including a full reorganization that we will be implementing in January of 2023. And so, we're excited about that, excited about realigning because what that's gonna do is now really facilitate us being able to follow and implement our mission.
And so, I think that is such an opportunity from a grassroots perspective for our staff to be excited about the opportunities before them to be able to be really out-of-the-box thinking, innovative thinking on their part and what we can all do together again, within our mission to support and strengthen the U.S. fire and EMS services.
And so that to me was the really — the foundation that really led to a lot of the other things. The summit was a huge piece. How exciting was that?
Teresa: That was incredible. When the president came on, it was just — it was just amazing in that he really cares about the fire service.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Oh, absolutely.
Teresa: And not just the fire service, the EMS, everybody — he knows those are important; this is an important service to him, and he wants us to be successful.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Yeah, absolutely. And so that was a big highlight of the summit, but we had the secretary of Homeland Security present, we had the deputy secretary, we had the FEMA administrator, we had the director of the National Security Council.
It was just an incredible government showing, but it also was that every head of every major national fire organization was here. And so, it was truly a summit where we had the coming together of even diverse mindsets where we could come together and then agree to work together. And I think that was only the beginning.

And what evolved from that summit and what we can look forward to in 2023 is the continued evolution of what we're calling now as the Fire Service One Voice, and the coming together of our divergent groups and saying, yes, we can have a single mission.

I know it was. That summit is really going to set the stage. And what evolved from that summit and what we can look forward to in 2023 is the continued evolution of what we're calling now as the Fire Service One Voice, and the coming together of our divergent groups and saying, yes, we can have a single mission.
USFA leads us in this single mission, which I think is an important point. And for them to collaborate together and say, yes, we can accomplish much more together. And so, the strength in that, and the synergy that can come out of that Fire Service One Voice and what we can impact. So, part of that, you know, was this national strategy now that we have formed; all of this evolved out of the summit. And so, if listeners aren't familiar with that national strategy, they can find it on our website; you can find it on our partner's website who helped us to co-host and do this summit, the National Fallen Firefighter Foundation, so I really wanna recognize them, and their part in helping us pull that summit together was huge. But the National Fire Strategy, and our 6 initiatives as part of that, and I'm just gonna reiterate those because this is what is driving our part of our mission right now, which is the wildfire space.
We have to make sure that we are getting training for our structural firefighters in regard to wildfire and the suburban conflagrations and things that can happen in the built environment. We have to make sure they have proper PPE, including respiratory protection.
Then we have the recruitment problem. So we've got to focus. I'm very afraid if we don't get a handle on the recruitment problem, that in five years, maybe even less, we're gonna have a severe shortage of first responders in this country.
The third one has to do with the whole cancer scenario for firefighters. Everything from reducing PFAS in the fire suppressant materials that we use to the PFAS in our gear and our overall exposure on the job. And so we've got to continue to address cancer in the fire service.
The next is our behavior health challenges, right? And the PTSD challenges, all the secondary addictions that come based on primary PTSD that are going undiagnosed. All of these things that we have from a health and wellness perspective.
Then we have our overall built environment and our codes and standards. This is huge. We've got to advocate, come together and understand that often when we respond to fires, it is because the structure itself has already failed, and so our responders are going into a much higher-risk environment.
The occupants of that structure are at a much higher risk because it doesn't align with even our national standards or even a state code or standard. And so, this is another of our big initiatives for 2023.
And then finally, elevating the fire service within federal government. We unfortunately have not gotten the attention that we need as the fire service and our role in the larger safety net of the nation.
And yet we're one little organization, inside another large organization, inside another. Right? And so, these are the kinds of things that we wanna highlight and understanding how do we elevate that for recognition and to make sure we have the attention that is necessary for the fire service going forward.
So that really, for me, sets the stage for 2023. It really is that plus our international global engagement where I think U.S. has — our nation has a role, our fire service has a role to share information and to learn also from our global — greater global partners.
Teresa: Yeah. And so, one of the things that's kind of started off our year, I remember, we did the podcast last year and then right after that we had 2 big fires in Philly and in the Bronx.
And it kind of started our year off on just a terrible slide. Our year was tough; I can't even begin to think about the families. I think the whole year, those two fires and what happened in January stayed front and center in what we did. It's not that others haven't been lost. And we know, I've heard you speak several times over this year, and there was 1 day where we didn't have a fire fatality, 1 day, and I think that since then I worked with Lorraine Carli and we looked through it again, and there was 1 other day. So far there's been 2 days in 2022 where we haven't lost somebody in a home fire.
And that is — I think sometimes we forget that's our rally, that is our rally, really. And from that rally comes those other things. Yes, we wanna make sure that people are safer in their homes. We wanna make sure that they have safe homes. And if those fires don't happen, that helps with our fire service as well.
They aren't exposed and they aren't in danger because the buildings are up to code. You know all of those things. So, it all rolls out from there. I know I just grabbed some of your talking points because, like I said, I've heard you speak about it a couple times about how those fires, maybe how that kind of lit the spark, but made us really dig in and say, wait a minute, it's — yes, these 2 are huge.
They're devastating and they're huge. But every day somebody is having a disaster, you know, and it might not be a disaster that FEMA responds to, but it is a disaster for their family. It is a disaster for their life. And those first responders, those firefighters, those EMS personnel, those are our boots on the ground.
I know we have a National Guard, but they are kind of like our army. They are our military, to help our citizens get through the roughest times.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: They're our safety net, right? Yeah. They are our responders. They are the first on scene. They're the face they're gonna remember.
And I know even President Biden spoke about that when he said when something negative happens, you don't necessarily see a parent right away, you don't call out, but you call 911, and guess who's coming? Yeah. It's the fire service. It's firefighters and paramedics.
And so that is the face of our safety net. It's our emergency response, it's our all-hazards. It's — if it's not crime, then it is us. It's the fire service. And so that's an important point is that we continue to be able to deliver on that promise to our nation. And I think, as you said, those 2 fires really — we can point back to those multiple fatality fires, but we have multiple fatality fires — lower numbers, thank God — but still these multiples or even the singles are too many. This week we had 3 children. Here in December when we're shooting this, 3 children this week died in a fire, all under 5 years old. We should not have to experience that in this nation. And so, we still have a fire problem.

As you've heard me say, America is still burning, and this is not just wildfire. We still have a structure fire problem that we need to draw attention to continuously.

As you've heard me say, America is still burning, and this is not just wildfire. We still have a structure fire problem that we need to draw attention to continuously. So, we will continue to advocate in that regard, and we'll continue to focus on the prevention aspect because, as you said, if we can stop the fire, the fire that doesn't happen is the one we all want.
And so, it is safer for everybody. Our responders aren't exposed. The risk doesn't escalate. We don't have structural collapse. These things are so the fire never happens. And so that's important. We wanna make sure though, that we're following those — the codes and standards, sprinklers, residential sprinklers, all of the codes — and I'll go to wildfire for a moment because it is still in that space where we continue to expand our built environment into what was forested areas. And clearing the trees and building houses there do not make that piece of geography any less fire prone. And that is a very simple scientific concept that we need people to understand.
Builders need to understand that land is still fire prone. And so, it is absolutely imperative for developing communities; they should be fire-adapted communities, and we have the science that informs that thanks to NIST and thanks to others — we know what needs to happen. And so, these fire-adapted communities, which is part of our national cohesive strategy in the wildfire space, are absolutely necessary.
And then making sure that we have a response force that can respond when those fires do occur. And so that safe and effective and efficient response force that comes out of our fire departments — our local municipal fire departments — is absolutely key. And so, making sure that they have the resources they need to match that risk potential in their communities is also something that we will continue to advocate.
Teresa: And I think it's also important for us — and I know I've heard it talked about — is that after those fires happen, we have to be able to build back better and not build back to what is gonna burn again.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Yes.
Teresa: Or build back to — reversing codes to make it easier to build back, because we know that just means that you're gonna respond again. There has to be some type of legislation in the states to say, okay, we're not going to do this again.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Yeah. I think there's a problem, and you're spot on with that because we do see after a disaster — after a disaster, often there is some impetus to say let's get people back in housing quickly.
Which, we want that. Absolutely, we want that. The key is, however, not to choose speed over safe. Right? And so, we want the speed, but then we have now a higher-risk problem, and it is going to burn again, especially in fire-prone areas. It's just a matter of when, not if. And so, we can't lessen a code to make it cheaper and faster. Right?
Because we compromise then safety or quality when we do that, and this is something we need decision-makers to understand because when they're faced with a demand — and I get that we're faced with a demand — we have people who are unhoused. There is a need — there is a need to move quickly, but compromising long-term safety, compromising long-term resilience, is a problem.

… we have to help our decision-makers at all levels of government understand what resilient communities mean and how to build that resilience long-term.

And so, we have to help our decision-makers at all levels of government understand what resilient communities mean and how to build that resilience long-term. And it's not always the cheapest and fastest route to do that. And so, we really have to, as fire service leaders, teach that concept and then maintain our position on that concept.
Teresa: So, another thing that you talked about last year at the beginning of the year was NFIRS modernization. Are you able to tell us anything else about that?
Dr. Moore-Merrell: I'd be happy to tell you about that. So yes, NFIRS modernization. We started right away looking at how do we do this?
And as you might imagine inside the federal government with a legacy data system that's been around literally since the 1970s — late 1970s — that it's a bit ingrained. No one really understands how it's continuing to operate cuz it really hasn't been updated for over 20 years.
And getting or finding a path, I guess is a better way to say it. Finding the path to change has been a little challenging, but we're getting there. And so, I fully anticipate that by February of 2023 we'll start to talk much more openly about here's what is happening now. We will begin to build — we'll start to code the new system.
What we are building is a new analytics platform that will have data fusion capability. It will have analytics that are live and operational at all levels. Meaning that a fire department who is entering or sending data. And I say sending, because we're gonna leverage as much data from different platforms that already exist rather than having a lot of data entry burden on the firefighters and fire officers themselves.
And so, any department that has onboarded the new system will have full access to the analytics platform and all their data back in that space, plus a ton of data they didn't have that has now been fused or integrated with their data to give them greater insights. And so, that is something that we'll start to talk about and start to lay out what is this gonna look like?
What is transition gonna look like? And start to talk and hone in on dates, date frames, estimates for when we're gonna start the first departments transitioning onto the new system. And then when we will go into full transition mode. And then when we will actually begin to archive data out of the legacy system, the NFIRS system, and begin to decommission that legacy system.

Right now, the goal and the deadline for decommissioning the legacy system (NFIRS) is early — like January through March needs to be completed — of 2025. So, we are on a time frame where we've got to move expeditiously and with a purpose to make sure that this new system is stood up and is ready to go very quickly.

We are partnering with Homeland Security, DHS Science and Technology in this effort. We are making it a research and development effort, and we will be moving toward that, as I said, in a release of much more information in early February of 2023. But I think for now everybody can anticipate excitement about the opportunity ahead of us and what this means for the fire service as a whole.
But for now, please keep doing what you're doing with the legacy system. We will be giving you full communications on what's gonna happen and how that data will be archived. And then how we will begin to transition your departments over in late '23 and fully throughout the year in 2024.
Teresa: When we were in Wisconsin and you were talking to the fire service at a meeting, and you talked to them about NFIRS and you said, "You know how when you're putting in data and you do everything you can so that other box doesn't pop up,” and everybody laughed because it was true.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Yes, and there was what, 300 people in that room?
Teresa: I'm not in the data part, the data section. And so, I don't know all the intricacies, but it was hilarious because as soon as you said that, everybody just went — just cracked up and I said, ugh, it's true.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: That's when you realize — and this has been a perpetual problem for many years, because firefighters — we didn't teach them, first of all, the value of data, and it trickles down to, you know, the lowest-ranking member to have to go put it in. And then you're getting through, and what they were trained to do was check these boxes and don't click that box over there because it'll open a new window.
And so unfortunately that's been perpetuated throughout the fire service and that is a result, resulting in, now, the lack of quality data that we have. We've got plenty of it. It's just not any good. And we do the best we can with it, and our data center folks are doing the best they can with it.
But we're gonna get them a new data feed and a lot of excitement about the real potential for our analysts inside our national data center. And as you know, part of the reorg is we are standing up a new research division, so the data center will move to the new research division.
Very soon we're gonna be looking for a new head of our research division. So that's an exciting thing that I would love to see that hire, that find, that hire take place in very early first quarter of 2023. So, anybody who's interested in that, we want a good PhD level to come in and help lead for the USFA to begin the collaboration, not only with Homeland Security Science and Technology, but with NIOSH and with our partners externally who do research.

… data is going to really drive our success across the board. And that's gonna contribute to not only our fire departments locally having success and having operational insights and understanding what they don't understand today about their own systems, but also community risk reduction.

And so, we're very excited about that opportunity, but that data is going to really drive our success across the board. And that's gonna contribute to not only our fire departments locally having success and having operational insights and understanding what they don't understand today about their own systems, but also community risk reduction.
It's gonna inform prevention, it's gonna inform our training here at the National Academy. It's gonna inform so many things when we have quality data coming in that can be leveraged, fused with other data and then mined for intelligence. This is going to be a game changer.
Teresa: I agree. And I have to say I know we're wrapping up our time together, but I wanted to say that we're very happy to have you.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Thank you.
Teresa: You have hit the ground running, speeding, sprinting. And it's been exciting for us at USFA to come along and to learn from you. The connections that you have and the way that you bring people together is really inspiring for us. And I would have to say that you've had a really hard job over the last year.
It's difficult to try to do external things while you also have to do internal. You know, we were in a meeting earlier this morning and I thought, wow, what a hard job that is, because you're trying to raise USFA, raise the fire service up to the level it should be.
But you also have things within your own organization that have to be fixed as well. So, it's coming from both fronts at all times. And I know you were exactly the right person for this.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Ah, thank you, Teresa.
Teresa: And to do this, but I just wanted to say thank you from USFA.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Thank you.
It's an honor. This has been, I gotta tell you, the last year, yeah, it's been challenging. But who doesn't like a good challenge?
Teresa: Especially you.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Yeah. Who doesn't like a good challenge, and it has been exciting, and there's so many good people here at USFA, and I really just want everybody to be able to perform at their full potential, to get to have a say in what we do.
And everybody here has their own thoughts and things that they want to accomplish in this space. They wanna help; they wanna do the right thing. And I think creating that opportunity internally, it has been challenging, but we're gonna get there, and we're continuing to open that up. And really from the bottom up, I wanna hear their voices.
I wanna know what do they wanna do, what do they think? Because that has implication for our performance to be able to complete our mission, right? And our mission is to support and strengthen the U.S. fire and emergency services so that they can respond, they can continue to be that safety net — that all-hazards safety net for our nation.
Teresa: Thank you.
Dr. Moore-Merrell: Thank you for this time, Teresa. I appreciate it.

Thank you for listening to the USFA Podcast, and thank you to Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell. You can learn more about the initiatives we spoke about today by going to our website at usfa.fema.gov. If there is a guest you would like to hear from or a topic you think we should discuss, please send an email to fema-usfapodcast@femadhs.gov .

Don't forget to subscribe to our show on Apple or Google, and we'll share a new episode every third Thursday of each month. You can visit us at usfa.fema.gov or on social media by searching "usfire," but until next month, stay safe.