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A Conversation with the U.S. Fire Administrator

On this episode, we speak with Fire Administrator Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell to recap 2023 accomplishments and discuss USFA priorities for 2024.

Posted: Jan. 18, 2024

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At the 2023 Summit, the National Strategy was updated to include 4 new topics.

Photo of Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell meeting an urban search and rescue team.

Listen online 26:02

Photo of Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell meeting an urban search and rescue team.

Transcript

Estimated 15 min reading time.

Welcome to the USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the U.S. Fire Administration. I’m your host, Teresa Neal. As we have for the past 2 years, we welcome the U.S. fire administrator, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, to the podcast to share her thoughts on the last year and plans for USFA in 2024. Thank you, ma’am, for joining us today.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Hi, Teresa. It’s always a pleasure to be able to talk with you on the podcast, and I really appreciate your continued work in leaning in and making sure we have special guests to tell the story of the U.S. fire service and all of the things that we have in motion. So, thanks for having me today.

Teresa Neal

So, 2023 was a really busy and productive year for USFA and for you.

It started with the Fire Stop Tour and recently wrapped up with the Fire Administrator’s Summit on Fire Prevention and Control, but in between there’ve been conferences, a lot of international travel and the beginning of modernizing the fire data system NERIS, as well as updating the national fire strategy.

So, looking back, what are your biggest takeaways from 2023?

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Wow. That’s a big question. I think you hit it on the beginning and we have to really start with, you know, those Fire Stop Tours. We collectively, as the nation’s fire service, came together. And what I mean by that, just so in case the listeners haven’t heard of One Voice and our fire service One Voice effort, you know, it was an effort that really came to be after the Summit in 2022, where we talked about, okay, what’s next?

We’ve now held the first annual USFA Summit on Fire Prevention and Control. Where do we go now? And this involves all of our major organizations, including the IAFC, the IAFF, the NFPA, the NVFC, the National Sprinkler Association, UL and our National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

And these groups have come together and said, you know, we can collectively have a mission that really does move USFA as the leader of the fire service. They each individually keep their own missions, but together we represent the nation’s fire service in this One Voice effort.

Well, when we talked about it, we said, what do we do to impact, you know, fire? How do we change the trajectory of the number of fires that are still happening — structure fires — across our nation and certainly impact the number of fire deaths? And so, this Fire Stop Tour came about. And we were able to do the Fire Stop Tour where we went to New York and went to the site where we had just a few months prior lost 17 people in a single structure fire.

We went to Philadelphia and we traveled by train, so it was truly a whistle stop kind of tour. Went to Philly. And stood with the commissioner there, talked about the 12 deaths they had had in a single fire, not to mention all the displacements. And then we came to Washington, D.C., where we were joined by Congress folks who had been instrumental in sponsoring and passing legislation that President Biden signed in regard to USFA’s new investigative authority and also tamper-resistant smoke alarms that really would have been beneficial in both of those major fires that I just mentioned.

And so, for us, this was huge to stand together, travel together and really begin to bond. Well, that was at the end of it, as you know, Teresa, because that was just the structure Fire Stop Tour on the East Coast.

And then the conversation really changed to what do we do on the West Coast? Well, we have to deal with wildfire, right? With our change in climate that continues, the drought that continues in many areas, the extreme heat that continues in many areas. We then decided we must do a Wildfire Stop Tour.

We have to talk about the building codes that must be implemented. If we’re going to continue to build toward risk in this nation and put buildings in the path of fire, then we have to have these conversations. And so, we started at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. We met up with our USFA implant there, Aitor Bidaburu, who really stood with us and the chief of Boise and all of our One Voice group, and we kicked off our Wildfire Stop Tour.

Then we traveled to Colorado Springs, where we stood with the chief there, and we looked at an area or community that had been mitigated. They had really done great due diligence and making sure they reduce vegetation, and they had the right building materials, and it was really an example of how to do it right.

And then we ended in Sacramento, where we could see again areas where the neighborhoods had been built appropriately for preventing spread of wildfire in their community should it occur. Again, looking to the building codes and making sure they’re building with fire-resistant materials, making sure that they are at least aware of all of the actions to take to reduce vegetation and things like that around their home.

And so, this really has solidified our One Voice strategy across the whole of the fire service. And then we had a couple of other things, Teresa, that I really do want to mention because as you know, in 2023, USFA underwent a reorganization. Right? We needed to align better with our mission. We needed to align better with our legislation that really lays out what USFA is supposed to be doing.

And so, we did that. And in our reorganization, we were able to stand up an EMS branch. And we’ve talked about, and when I go around, I talk about the fact that, with 70% of what we do in the fire services is EMS, we really need to do much more at USFA. And so, we stood up our new branch. We’ve got a new branch chief. And we are really leaning in to building and bolstering our EMS resources and our EMS capacity to deliver on that portion of our mission from USFA.

And the last thing that I will say, Teresa, because I could go on and on in this space of what happened in 2023, is that on May 4, we were able to launch our new agreement to build our new data system. May 4 you may not recognize, but that’s the 50th anniversary of the “America Burning” report that really was the impetus for USFA to begin with and the National Data System.

And so, Homeland Security Science and Technology, we had partnered with them to try to find a performer outside federal government who would build this new system, and on May 4, just before midnight, that agreement was signed between Science and Technology and UL’s Fire Safety Research Institute that you all may know as FSRI, who is a very strong partner.

They were selected by Science and Technology to build our new National Emergency Response Information System, known as NERIS. And so, they are well underway. But to me, that’s one of the bigger highlights because now it will pave the way for us to have a new data system and eventually — early 2025 — very likely decommission our legacy NFIRS system and we’ll have a brand-new national data system across the U.S. So those are my highlights, I think, Teresa, from 2023.

Teresa Neal

Yeah, and the NERIS is really exciting. I’ve just laughed sometimes when we’re doing things for prevention and public education, because we have to, we have to use what we have. And I always say, I want to find out if cooking really is the leading cause of home fires, you know, I want to find out what it really is, and so I know that once we get NERIS with all the sensors and the information that we’ll be able to tap into, we’ll have a better understanding of what’s happening.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Most definitely. That’s an exciting piece, right? We’ll know what the truth is, we’ll be able to inform things we’ve never had data on before, so that’s an exciting proposition.

Teresa Neal

Yeah. And you also led the second Summit on Fire Prevention and Control, and that was huge, obviously. You even had the secretary come in for that, and the president, virtually. So, that’s always exciting that you’ve really helped raise our level. You know, USFA’s level in the government that they wanted to be part of it.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

That’s exciting, isn’t it? I tell you. Yes, there’s a second Summit on Fire Prevention and Control, and now it’s annual. We do it during Fire Prevention Week, but the 2023 Summit was held in October, and yes, the secretary of Homeland Security wanted to lead it. He did. He led the roundtable discussion, certainly, and the testimonies that were heard from our One Voice group who were at the table, and I mentioned them earlier, each of them delivering testimony on our national strategy.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the national strategy, then it was really started in the 2022 Summit. And then we had work groups that worked on each of the strategies through ’23 delivering their recommendations and their reports at the ’23 Summit. And that’s what the secretary heard. He heard the testimony from our groups and the strategy really revolved around 6 items.

One was on wildfire and climate change. One was around recruitment and retention, and I know that most departments across the nation are dealing with that. One strategy was around cancer, firefighter cancer and PFAS and trying to change the trajectory there. One was around firefighter mental health.

Certainly suicide prevention, but really leaning into mental resilience building. One was around building codes and standards and making sure that we’re moving for implementation of the full national code throughout the nation, and also enforcement capability at the local level. And then the last was the elevation of the fire service in the nation as a whole.

And those 6 strategies, we really all leaned into that throughout 2023. And then as we approach the Summit, all of those work groups who did such a stellar job, it was amazing to watch how many people came together and said, “I want to work on that. I’m passionate about that.” And they delivered recommendations — it was amazing.

What we did — and if you haven’t seen that report it’s available on our website, it’s available on NFFF’s websites — and just see the fact sheets around what our nation came together to do around the Summit. And I think that’s an important piece to highlight as we go into ‘24.

Certainly, I’m sure we’re going to come back around and have that conversation.

Teresa Neal

And so, the national strategy, you said it was after the work groups worked through the 6 initiatives, and then they brought their recommendations, and one of their recommendations for the 2023 Summit was to add a seventh critical issue, and that one was for EV and energy transition.

So why do you feel that this was so important?

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

You know, I think it was important because as the work groups came together, this was a big piece that kept coming up. We kept having the conversations. We kept watching because as you know, in our legacy data system, we don’t even have a capability to track this.

Sometimes the fires are tracked as electrical fires. Sometimes they’re tracked as hazmat. And so, there’s no real way to understand, and it comes down to departments telling their own story. And FDNY has done a beautiful job at this. They have really collected their own data. They’ve been able to tell about the impact not just by fire deaths, but how many people have been injured and displaced and property loss and they have moved regulation.

And so, in watching that, how can we not tell that story when we know it’s happening in other cities? And so, the One Voice group came together and said, yes, we must add that because the nation needs to be alerted to this situation. And so, we added that as a seventh item at the roundtable discussion.

The secretary had no idea. And so, as we’re talking around and Dr. Kerber — Steve Kerber from UL — gave that testimony during the roundtable at the Summit and the secretary said he literally had no idea. I’m not aware of this. And so, we began to be able to talk about this and even he said, I want to put something about this in a letter to our nation’s mayors.

And so, we’ve even followed up on that. And so, these are actions that can take place. But it’s up to us to have that voice and to be able to tell that story and the right audiences to get the attention. And that’s the real power in my mind of the Summit and bringing in our nation’s, our homeland security and our national security leaders to listen to the fire service, and when we stand together with one voice, it becomes powerful.

And it did around this lithium-ion technology, whether it’s an EV or it’s in the micro mobility products or even in our battery energy storage systems in homes with solar. So, this is a conversation that’s going to be ongoing.

Teresa Neal

You talked about that this is our national fire strategy, but throughout the year, you’ve traveled internationally. And I think that when you brought that strategy to people all over the world, they said that’s kind of theirs too. So it’s almost evolved into an international strategy.

And you have really spearheaded USFA getting involved in some of these international discussions in not just 1 area, not just the U.K., where it’s very similar, but throughout the different countries and even continents. So, why do you think it’s so important for USFA to, you know, really step forward in this area?

Because sometimes, you know, when people go, “Why are we doing international? We have our own problems.” But there’s a good strategy behind why. Yes, we do have our own problems, but ...

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Why international? That’s a great question, Teresa. So, you’re right. The national strategy as I speak about it, as we began to have engagement with my counterpart in other nations, it did come to light that globally these 6 strategies, 7 now that — that we have honed in on particularly for the roundtable.

And there’s actually 3 more that we’re going to be adding for 2024, but other nations are saying, yeah, we could just take off “USA” and put on, you know, our nation’s name. And that was the conversation. And so, we pulled together a group of nations who we had the opportunity to meet with. And I’ve actually signed memorandum of understanding that do collaboration with these nations that it’s going to be a mutual benefit.

Not only are we going to share some, you know, risk assessment-type methodology with them, maybe some training, a lot of interest in training for fire response and understanding effective response forces and things like that, but for them to share with us their mental health resilience building and some of the other attributes, high-intensity response like the building collapse we had in Surfside, and having intel and intelligence capability, on-scene rescue capabilities that we may not have used in the U.S. previously that we can learn from other nations.

And so, having these relationships in place matter. And this collaboration matters. And, you know, I will say, as we move forward, we’re certainly going to be looking at continuing this global collaboration, establishing a global network that we can communicate with frequently and ongoing basis consistently, right?

That we can learn together because, just to use wildfire as an example: Wildfire and climate change, extreme heat, drought — all of these things are not just a U.S. issue. They are a global issue. We watched as Greece burned. We watched as Spain. We’ve watched Portugal. We’ve watched the U.K. And I could go on naming the nations who’ve had huge wildfire problems.

And so, getting us all together, collaborating, understanding the movement, understanding the baseline change and our risk, and how we need to deploy differently, how we need to train differently, how our firefighters must be trained in wildfire response, not wildland fire response. Wildfire in our communities that structure-to-structure — multiple structure spread, that is absolutely key for all of our U.S. firefighters to be trained in that space. That needs to happen across the globe.

And so, these conversations are very real. They are very much needed. The collaboration is very real. Everything from our firefighter health and safety to building code implementation.

Every piece of our national strategy is relevant globally. And particularly, if I’ll use wildfire again, we have to reduce the wildfire because every time we have a wildfire, those greenhouse gases that — the products of combustion that are going into the atmosphere are contributing to circumstances around climate change that’s causing some of the drought and extreme heat. And so, it becomes very cyclical. And it’s a contributing factor. So, reducing the number of wildfires is key to having an impact on climate change as in total. So, this is why global collaboration matters. It’s why for us at USFA, this is going to be a priority going forward.

Teresa Neal

And so, looking ahead, what do you see in store for USFA?

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

You know, if I just look at 2024, because that could get really visionary if you want me to keep going beyond that. But I think just for 2024, Teresa, what I’m looking forward to is our continued international engagement. It’s important. These relationships are important.

This collaboration matters across the globe, elevating the fire service and knowing that firefighters and having their capability, their training, things that we can share across borders that are going to make a difference for all of us is going to be key. And so, in 2024 in May, USFA is going to host the first-ever inaugural World Fire Congress, and we’re working on this even now.

But in May, we’ll be hosting that here in Washington, D.C. Homeland Security is part of it. FEMA is certainly going to be a part of it, but hosting my counterpart — in many nations don’t have a fire administrator, but we’re working hard to identify who’s the top government official who’s responsible for fire.

And bringing them to the table to have sort of a UN-type discussion around many of the subjects we’ve already mentioned in this podcast. So this World Fire Congress is really going to be our baseline for establishing these relationships, establishing a network of global collaboration on fire, and so I’m grateful to our One Voice group who stepped up.

They’re going to be a big part of hosting this World Fire Congress and making sure that we can establish something that will last. And then, the other thing I’m looking forward to is a lot of new curriculums that we’ve been offering and pilot courses at NFA. Kudos to our superintendent there and all the staff at NFA; they’re doing a great job rolling out new curriculum. We’ve got new curriculum around DEI which is important. And how do you implement a cultural readiness for change back at home? You come and you learn and develop at the National Fire Academy and then you take that back home and make a difference.

And so, these are things that I think from NFA we can really contribute. Another thing is making sure that we can — I mentioned training all structural firefighters for wildfire, when there’s more than 1 structure on fire, right? When there’s, you know, you got 200 on fire or, you know, whatever number that we saw in the Marshall Fire where 1,080 homes burned, or in the Maui Fire where we had hundreds of homes that burned, those firefighters, you know, we have to make sure our structural firefighters are prepared.

These are not wildland fires. These are community conflagrations that are often grass-fed fires that ignite structures and then we get structure-to-structure spread. So I’m looking forward to us continuing down that path. And we’re going to be working on an evacuation program or project. I really want to get everybody that has anything to do with evacuation, everybody from FEMA’s IPAWS system to NIST who’s looked at some of the research around evacuation, to our academics who really can inform messaging to get people to move.

I want people at the table from a technology perspective, from a messaging perspective, anyone who has anything to do with evacuation, we have to address this, and I think we can do better across the board in all types of evacuation by helping people understand not just when to go and telling them when to go, it’s time to evacuate in the midst of a disaster, but where they are to go.

And so, we’re going to be leaning into this evacuation project in 2024. So more to come on that. And then finally, I have to highlight NERIS again, our National Emergency Response Information System. We are looking that in early 2024, we’re going to be rolling out our initial prototype on NERIS. We’re going to be doing some heavy webinars that are coming up to make sure the fire service in the nation is aware of what’s happening and they can anticipate it and they’re ready to onboard.

And we’ll be onboarding a few departments in early 2024 and then much heavier onboarding efforts throughout the year next year and into 2025. So those are the highlights. Those are the big things. There’s a lot, a lot, a lot going on at USFA. And we certainly want the whole of the fire service to be part of it.

If you’re not aware or want to be part of anything we’re doing, please, please reach out because it’s exciting times at NFA. NFA, USFA, it’s exciting times for all of us, Teresa. And congratulations to you, by the way. And thank you for stepping up to take on our Communications Branch, our new Communications Branch chief.

And so, I’m really looking forward, Teresa, to your leadership and what we’re going to be doing across the board there with our community engagement practices.

Teresa Neal

Thank you, ma’am. And so, is there anything else that you would like to talk about? Anything at all?

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

No, I think you know, we’ve got a lot of excitement happening.

We’ve talked a good bit about our efforts across the nation, our efforts internationally. And I just want to make sure that across our fire service, that everyone knows you are welcome to participate. You’re welcome to get involved. We want you to be part of USFA’s leadership of the nation’s fire service and really understanding who USFA is, what we do, and if you haven’t been on the website lately, check it out.

We’ve got all kinds of materials we can send you for engagement in your own communities. You’re going to be seeing more around that too. Community engagement is going to be a priority for us in 2024 and going forward. You’re probably going to see the One Voice group out and about again in one of your local fire stations.

So, stay tuned as we select the cities of where we’re going to visit and do some direct community engagement. So, I think that is the buzzword going forward. It’s elevating the fire service through direct community engagement. And both domestically and internationally.

Teresa Neal

Well, thank you, ma’am.

You know that I’m a fan. I thank you for your leadership at USFA. I’ve been here for a long time and it’s just like you said, it really is an exciting time around here. There’s a lot to do, but I think that people feel empowered to do it. And we’re not doing it alone. Like you said, with Fire Service One Voice, we’re reaching out and having our partners help us and also empowering them to say, “We can’t do this, so you can do it, but we’ll stand beside you while you do it.” And I think that’s really exciting.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Yeah, I agree, Teresa. And listen, thank you for this.

Thanks for the opportunity to communicate. And I really want to also invite others who might want to feature something on our podcast. We’re looking for you to tell your story, right? And to be able to talk. And so, we’ll be going to each of our One Voice groups and making sure they have an opportunity to talk about their missions and what they do, but we are also looking for innovation and things that we can use to further the fire service and our mission.

Teresa Neal

Thank you, ma’am.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell

Thanks, everyone. Thanks, Teresa.

Teresa Neal

Thank you for joining us, and thank you for listening to the USFA Podcast. You can learn more about the National Fire Strategy on the USFA website, and as Dr. Lori said, if you have a topic or a speaker or you would like to be interviewed, please email the show at fema-usfapodcast@fema.dhs.gov.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our show on Apple or YouTube Podcasts.

We share our new episodes every third Thursday of the month. You can visit us at usfa.fema.gov or on social media by searching “usfire.” Until next month, stay safe.