Welcome to “The USFA Podcast,” the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal.
Before we jump into this episode, I’d like to invite you to share your suggestions for podcast topics or interviews. Perhaps you have a dynamic story that leads to a teachable moment you’d like to share. You can do this by emailing your ideas to FEMA-USFApodcast@fema.dhs.gov.
This episode is a little different from previous episodes. We heard our former fire administrator, Chief Keith Bryant, was on campus taking a class at the National Fire Academy.
The stars aligned as our administrator was also here, and the 2 were able to connect for this great conversation.
So, on this episode, Dr. Moore-Merrell is interviewing Chief Bryant about his time at the USFA and what he is doing now.
I hope you enjoy their conversation.
Hello, everyone. This is Lori Moore-Merrell, your U.S. fire administrator. And today I’m joined by a former U.S. fire administrator, Chief Keith Bryant. Hi Keith. Welcome back to campus.
Good to be here. This is a great place to be, so I was thrilled to be able to come back.
And so, you’re here taking a class, I understand.
Absolutely. A student. So, “Plans Review for Fire and Life Safety,” which kind of goes along with what I’m doing here currently.
So that’s great. Well, I’m glad to see you. You’re a friend. Long before we were both put through these seats that we are in. So, I’m just glad to see you personally. But welcome back, as I said to campus, Glad to see you here as a student. I know that probably feels a little odd for you having you here, but it is it’s exciting, too, because I know that just seeing the staff walking around campus and recognizing you has been a treat for them.
So, it’s good to see that that you were well-loved here and I’m glad to have you back. So, I do want to have just a little conversation about life after the Fire Administration. Talk to you a little bit about what you’re doing now. And we’ll start probably, though, with how was it when you were in this seat? I’d love to know what you experienced here. I know you and I have talked a little bit about during COVID. But what was this like for you being the U.S. Fire Administrator? Give us a little insight before I got here.
Well, I thought it started off pretty well. You know, we had Brock Long was the FEMA Administrator, and so came in just after Brock. And that was a good relationship. We had a good working relationship. I think he wanted to know my ideas for where we needed to move the Fire Administration forward. So, we were working on some things like that. But then, you know, being a part of FEMA can complicate things, as you well know. So, no sooner than I got in place in August that by September so that the series of hurricanes that year, was a pretty bad hurricane season. And so just from being part of FEMA and how that affected my interaction with the FEMA Administrator, how that affected staff here, because most of the staff was deployed during those disasters and down doing public assistance and so forth or individual assistance. So, that had an impact on the Fire Administration. And so, it got interesting real quick. And I don’t know that it ever calmed down from that. And of course, in the midst of all that, we had a change in FEMA Administrator. So that little bit disruptive as well. So, interesting time. Obviously, the administration I served in was a probably a different administration than most folks that were in federal government were used to.
Which had its own challenges, right? Yeah.
Yeah, I did. And, probably, I say a very interesting time, historically. So, you know, that was kind of interesting being around for that. And then no sooner than we kind of we got through some of those disasters, then COVID hit and how that impacted the campus here. So.
What was your first inclination when COVID, and, of course, we were watching as the nation was trying to, you know, just come to resolve with COVID itself and what we were dealing with. And we didn’t really know. But what went on in your first actions once COVID came to be. You knew there was going to be a government shutdown. What were some of the decisions that you were faced with as Fire Administrator?
Well, you know, we had probably, if you want to call it that, a couple practice runs at it, because we did have a couple of short government shutdowns prior to COVID. So, it was a matter of days, one very short like maybe less than a week, and then one in December, that was actually a little bit prolonged. So, we did have a couple of test runs. But, you know, it’s, when COVID hit, I think my focus went a little different from really how it impacted the campus, because that was kind of a given. We were going to have to shut down courses here at the campus. But also, where was the Fire Administration’s role in the COVID response? And so, and trying to work with the FEMA Administrator, even though FEMA may have not been the lead agency on the COVID response, there’s still a major part to play. I started trying to make regular contact with all the major fire service organizations. One, seeing what their needs were, what were they actually experiencing out there. And doing my best to communicate that to FEMA leadership as far as supply issues, those types of things that were impacting the fire service.
It was challenging and sometimes difficult and sometimes — just to be very honest — frustrating because there seemed to be a playbook, if you will, that all the federal agencies were supposed to go by. And in my opinion, that wasn’t necessarily taking into consideration the unique needs of the fire and emergency services.
I know you had a challenge with that. I remember you and I had conversations honestly during that time just about some of the information that was being deployed from various government agencies. Right. And purported to be for first responders. And yet we knew that it was not, in fact, relevant for first responders. So, as you said, I know that was frustrating.
There was a couple of meetings that we, the Fire Administration, facilitated between the people that were kind of over some of the supply chain issues, FEMA leadership, and the fire and emergency services and those initial meetings. Anyway. I think FEMA leadership, some of the others, could have done more listening than they did.
Understood. Understood. You know, Keith, I know that one of your passions while you were in the seat was wildfire, right? That was something that you wanted to make a mark on. That was your main initiative. Talk a little bit about what you were able to do, what you got started. I know that I’ve gotten to complete some of your work actually from the time I came in. But why was that your passion? What did you intend to do? What were you able to do?
Well, you being more the data expert than me, but me just understanding the data as I did and looking at the core mission of the Fire Administration. And that’s to have a positive impact on the fire problem in the United States. You know, everything that we were looking at, fire-related fatalities, dollars loss in the United States as a result of fire.
A lot of that was directly related to wildfire. And I just didn’t see it being addressed as I believed it should be, given that information, given that data. That we had, major, major wildfires. In fact, you know, as we know, entire communities being burned down out in the West and like I say, major loss of life, huge dollar loss.
And so, to me, I didn’t need to know much more than that to know that wildfire was the nation’s fire problem. I mean, structure fires are still trending down. So, I tried to make that an area of emphasis, an area of focus.
And so, we got some of the groups together and tried to at least create a framework of what an “America Burning” for a wildfire would look like and tried to get that initially.
Start the conversation.
Yeah. Yeah. You know, and that’s carried with you. I know we’ve even talked since I’ve been here in the wildfire space because what you’re doing now — first of all, tell us what you’re doing now, and then I’ll come back to this point.
Well, I’m currently the state fire marshal in Oklahoma, so not too long after I left here — there’s a 7-person commission that has the oversight over the State Fire Marshal’s office in Oklahoma. And they were struggling to find somebody that they thought was right for that position. And I, you know, being a former commissioner myself during my time as chief of Oklahoma City, I had some familiarity with the agency, and they approached me and believed that I might have some things to offer the agency. So, I went ahead and took that, took on that role, and it’s been enjoyable so far.
That’s great, and I think that’s a perfect seat for you, obviously, with your leadership capabilities, certainly from here. But as you transition then back to Oklahoma, your role really was the same. Now at the state level. And so, you can still address wildfire, you’re still in charge, I think, of assets, deployable assets, whether it’s aircraft or, you know, firefighting kind of response assets — because we’ve had that conversation. So, tell me what you’re getting to do in this space now, because I know it’s still a concern.
Well, similar, but on a state level. So just as here with the Fire Administration, we have to work with our friends over in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. I have the same situation back home in Oklahoma. So, in terms of wildfire, they’re the lead agency back home as well. But just as I did here, I was trying to push forward a little bit into that and make sure that the Fire Administration had a role, because I believe the Fire Administration had a lot to offer in that regard in terms of obviously training and education and data collection.
So just as my efforts here, a lot of it, you know — you know very well what I’m talking about when it comes to ESF #4 and having to work with forestry in that role — kind of the same thing back home and just making sure that — trying to establish the relationships you need, try to get the groups together.
You know, that’s kind of the main thing because just like the federal government, the agencies tend to try and work in their own space and don’t always have the right amount of cooperation and collaboration to bring about a positive change and move in a good direction.
You know, that’s a big piece, isn’t it? The relationships. It’s one of the things that I’ve learned, particularly in the federal government, is those relationships matter and being able to build and help people understand what you’re trying to accomplish and why, and why it’s important. And so, yeah, communication, there’s no shortage of communication — there’s no shortage of reading, is there? In this space. So, what are the other things that I think you went through that I want to hear about is — you went through fire marshal training, I believe. So, fire marshal training, the firearm and all.
Well, so by statute, I’m required to be a certified peace officer in the state of Oklahoma to hold this position. So, yes, I had to attend the state’s Law Enforcement Academy. It’s called CLEET. So, the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training. And yes, had to qualify with the firearm.
And which, I got to say, scares me a little, Keith. I’m just saying.
Well, you know, during the time I was chief in Oklahoma City, I come to the conclusion that one of the worst ideas ever was to give a firefighter a gun. And now I have one. And it’s just confirmation that that is absolutely the truth. So.
No, I’m sure there’s the leadership capacity and that kind of additional leadership understanding and understanding that space, and — brings a lot of new opportunity, new light and new communication opportunity in that — in that arena. So, what is your — what is your biggest goal now? What do you want to accomplish? If I said to you, what would you like to have accomplished between now and this time next year, what would you say?
Wow. Well, you know, so from my time here and looking at data, you know, my home state, sadly to say, Oklahoma is one of the worst states in terms of fire fatalities. We’re like at the very worst end of that list you could be at. So, knowing that and then going back home and being in this role, even though the State Fire Marshal’s office is a very small agency, again, I wanted to see if we could get the groups in the state together. The volunteer groups, the paid departments, the various firefighter associations, state chief associations.
Let’s all get together and see if we can make a real impact on that number and, you know, improve that if nothing else. So that’s kind of my main priority.
And, you know, because of the size of our agency and the fact that our agents are dual-role investigators and inspectors, they can only devote a certain amount of time to that prevention and education piece. So, but somebody’s got to coordinate the efforts on a statewide basis, and I thought that was a good role for us and working on.
That — that’s fantastic, because as you know, that is something that we continue to do here at USFA. Understanding that fire fatalities — we had nearly 2,500 last year, including 276 children, which is always stunning, those numbers we’ve had. You’ve had some recently in your own state.
Just lost 3, day before yesterday. It’s tragic.
Yes. So, these numbers are staggering and to me caused us to have to continue to look at the fire problem. We know we lost 96 firefighters last year. We’ve already lost a number this year. These things have to remain disturbing to us, right? We have to continue to want to draw attention to them. The statistics that we’re seeing now, the science coming out of UL, where we’re understanding that because of the built environment, because of the plastics and the foams and the things that we have in our homes, that fire burns so fast that we have less chance now of getting out of a structure if there’s a fire. We have less chance of being able to escape if we’re not alerted by a smoke alarm. And even if we are, having an egress path is a challenge sometimes, particularly in public housing. Also looking at, you know, a greater chance of dying. If I can’t escape, then my likelihood of dying is going up. So, this is something, you know, I think the passion that you share in that space is incredibly important. But yeah, these are personal, aren’t they?
Absolutely. And I think, you know, it’s — a lot of it’s where you’re from, where you live as far as what the exact problem is. And that’s what you have to bore down into. It’s not as simple as saying, you know, a lack of a working smoke alarm or something like that. You know, socioeconomics come into it. Rural versus urban comes into it, depending on where you’re at in the country. So, everyone has their own unique set of circumstances. But, you know, obviously there’s some common threads within that, too. And so, you know, when you get your chance to look at it from a national level, you’ve got to look at it all. And so that’s the challenge for you, and, you know, and mine, it’s just kind of more down to that state level where, you know, we have our own as far as, you know, just our population goes.
But as far as the firefighter statistics, yeah, I mean, you could look at it over the last 50 years or so and say some progress has been made, and we can all celebrate that. But still, it’s just unacceptable. The number and especially now that we’re looking at other causes such as long-term illness like cancers and so forth, and the mental health aspect of it as well. We’re losing too many people.
Yeah, I concur.
There’s some things in place to address that and that’s good, but it’s still somewhat alarming. Yeah, the number that we see every year.
And I think we’ve got to remain diligent in that space. One of the things that we started talking about, not just with the cancer — and of course we’ve got the PFAS bill now — looking at PFAS in our gear. But we want to remain diligent on other products of combustion, right? PFAS is not the only cancer-causing agent that we have. And so, I want to make sure that we stay focused on that. But you also mentioned the behavioral health arena. I think that we want to be cognizant of starting to build some mental resilience on the front end. We often talk about suicide, which is horrible. We talk about our PTSD numbers, which are unfortunately off the charts, much like our law enforcement brothers and our military brothers and sisters. But we’ve got to look at that mental resilience on the front end, building that in our new recruits. What kind of opportunity might you have at the state level to try to address something like that?
Well, I think it just comes from my background. You know, during my time as chief of Oklahoma City, I made that a point of emphasis. We brought in additional programs and so forth. We wanted to make sure that our folks had no excuse not to address an issue they were having. So, if that meant the IAFF Center of Excellence or if that meant a different program somewhere else, you know, whatever might appeal to them the most. OK, let’s just get you the help. So, a lot of that was taking out roadblocks and not necessarily getting into this “What’s best?” You know, what I believe is best and so forth. But, you know — and you’ve heard me talk about this several times.
And that’s one thing that I do get a little bit fired up about. That with all the improvements that we’ve seen in terms of technology and equipment. So, we’ve got the best PPE we’ve ever had, the best breathing apparatus. When it comes to the mental health issues and stuff, more programs in place than ever. Again, we still see too many people succumbing to the ill effects of either an occupational exposure from fire or the exposures they get that that are more of a mental or emotional nature. And with all that in place, to me it comes down to a leadership issue.
That we as leaders still allow too many things to happen in terms of exposure to whatever the hazard might be than we should. That is just absolutely inexcusable. And so that’s a big piece of it. You know, that, when you have all that put — and we fought and a lot of us have worked really hard to get these things in place to protect ourselves. And if we don’t avail ourselves to them or if we don’t demand that from the people that we lead in terms of their —
Behavior, that’s what you’re addressing, right? Their behavior to use these items.
That’s a failure of leadership. And I know we addressed that here, you know, with the educational programs here at the fire academy and in other places.
But so, I think you’re hearing — I’m hearing you say there’s a — there’s a bit of a sense of urgency for leaders to be leaders. That they have a measure of what I’ll call intensity about leading. Intensity and proximity is a … right? If we put that in focus, that they are not “from the office” leaders, they are “out there” leaders. Proximity to their people, intensity about behavior that we know can protect them. Those are the kinds of things I think if I were to try to describe what you just said, that’s what you see.
Again, that’s why I say we’ve, we’re training people well. We’re equipping them well. We have policy in place to address these issues to avoid unnecessary exposures. And if somebody identifies as needing some help with the substance abuse issue or something like that, there’s things in place.
So yeah, then it becomes incumbent, I think, on leadership to step up a little bit more and make sure and say no to certain behaviors that they see. Stop it when they see it.
To me, that’s the most effective way. It really drives that message home — and to be direct and, you know, “I’m not going to allow you to hurt yourself.”
And that’s a company officer level of leadership.
And some of the other things we see. I’m not going to allow my sister firefighter to be discriminated against or harassed or maybe, you know, another firefighter to be abused in some way or another. So, it’s just about stepping up and saying no to certain things that we know are still harming our folks.
And let’s talk just a minute about — we’ve addressed some physical safety, right? And the PPE and what they have to wear. But you just brought up another subject, what I’ll call psychological safety, right? So how important is it from a leadership perspective that we be alerted to not just our physical health and safety, but our psychological health and safety in a safe — psychologically safe — workspace in our stations?
Well, again, I think through data, we’re seeing that that’s just as important as the physical aspect. And so, you know, maybe we do better screening in that way. Just as we do physical screening when somebody enters the service, you know, we put them through a pretty rigorous physical testing and assessment.
That we also do that on the emotional or mental side as well to make sure that they’re suited because we, in a lot of cases, we’re just taking somebody that may not be and setting them up for these problems as they progress through a career.
So that’s one way I think we can address it. But the other I think it just comes down to, you know, peer to peer, and that requires a certain amount of training and awareness, too. That I know what to look for in my fellow firefighter that might lead me to address that with them and get them headed in the right direction and seek some assistance if they need it. So, and again, back to that leadership issue. If you’re not taking that seriously and you’re not putting programs in place to address it and deal with it, just like on physical injuries, when we don’t require people to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, that’s just going to break down at some point as well.
We’re perpetuating the problem. Wow, well, we talked about a lot. What else can you tell me about go forward? What advice would you give me as the current Fire Administrator? What advice do you have?
I wouldn’t even begin to try and give you any advice, Lori. You know, I know we’ve known each other for a long time, and I’ve respected the work that you’ve done. And I’ve said this publicly, and I don’t mind repeating it when people ask me about what my opinion is of my successor. I thought, you know, she’s more eminently qualified for this position than probably anybody I’ve ever known to hold it. And that that includes some really, some really, you know, pretty big time people in our business, if you will, when you go back and you think about the Dave Paulson and the Greg Cade’s and Kelvin Cochran and all the people that have held this job for…, like I say, based on your background and the things that you’ve done for the fire service in terms of research and things like that, I wouldn’t even think about giving you any advice.
Well, that’s great. I appreciate that so much. I really appreciate your, and your opinion means a lot to me. So, thank you. Thank you for that. Listen, I want to thank you for taking time today. I know I pulled you out of class to do this, so I’m really grateful just to sit down, have a conversation, spend some time with you, but also share our conversation through this, this means. So, thanks for doing this with me.
No problem, it’s good to talk to you.
It was good to see you.
All the best. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to “The USFA Podcast.”
We hope you enjoyed this catch-up with Chief Bryant and thank Dr. Lori for doing a great job interviewing him.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, you can join the conversation about fire safety by emailing your questions and sharing your stories to email@example.com.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our show on Apple or Google.
We share new episodes every third Thursday of each month.
You can visit us at usfa.fema.gov or on social media by searching @usfire. Until next month, stay safe!