"We Can Take the USFA to a Whole New Level" - Interview with U.S. Fire Administrator Cochran

On Friday, Aug. 14, FireRescue Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach interviewed Chief Kelvin Cochran, the newly appointed U.S. Fire Administrator and a FireRescue editorial board member.

Read articles from Chief Cochran.

Tim Sendelbach (TS): We’re here today with Chief Cochran, the new U.S. Fire Administrator. We’re very honored to have Chief Cochran on. We greatly appreciate it and want to congratulate you on behalf of all the FireRescue readers for you appointment. We look forward to hearing more from you as the U.S. Fire Administrator.

Chief Kelvin Cochran (KC): Thank you, Tim. And hello to all the FireRescue readers and to all the staff and board of FireRescue magazine.

TS: Chief, I guess let’s start out with this: Did you ever dream of this being part of your career, being U.S. Fire Administrator?

Listen to the Interview:

KC: No, Tim, I sure haven’t. I think I’ve made it known everywhere I’ve gone that I had a childhood dream of becoming a firefighter when I was 5 years old, living in poverty in Shreveport, Louisiana, when I saw firefighters fight a fire across the street from where I lived. That was the day that my dream was born, and I’ve been really consumed with that dream since that day and of course and it led to my employment as a firefighter in the city of Shreveport and ultimately I became the fire chief. I thought I’d reached the peak of what service in our great profession is all about and began to have a desire to serve at a greater level, so I became a part of the board of the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association and ultimately became the president there. At the end of that run, I had a desire to serve at an even greater level, so I ran for second vice president of the IAFC and served as the second vice president seat. A little bit over halfway through the first vice president’s reign, I got a call from the city of Atlanta and they asked me if I would be interesting in serving here, so I came to talk to the city administrators and ended up giving up my presidency of the IAFC to come to work for the city of Atlanta, and I was just content living and working here for the next 8 or so years, then retiring and going back to Shreveport, and then out of nowhere this tremendous opportunity comes along. So no, I never thought it would take me this far—that dream has really taken me much further than I thought it would.

TS: Well it’s certainly quite the journey, and we are extremely proud of your appointment and looking forward to it. With all your accomplishments in Shreveport and certainly the challenges with the tough economic times that you’ve had to endure in Atlanta and the leadership you’ve provided there, what are your goals and objectives as U.S. Fire Administrator?

KC: I’ll stick with four or five:

1. First and foremost, I think it’s still incumbent on the USFA and the administrator to really focus on how the organization was born in the first place, and that is out of the tremendous fire problem in the United States of America. We were experiencing a tremendous rate of deaths to citizens and property loss. Out of “America Burning,” the USFA was ultimately born to reduce fires and injuries and deaths related to fires. So I think that’s still a part of our mission. Even though we’ve made great strides in reducing those numbers, we should not be satisfied with our success and should continue to focus on high-risk areas, where there is still a tremendous loss of life and injuries, which are primarily senior citizens above 50, children under 5 and in poverty-stricken minority communities. And I just believe that we should continue to use programs that we’ve used in the past that were successful but evaluate them to see if there are new innovations that can make them better and then we need to market and target those areas and be a little more assertive in getting public education and life-saving education right to those vulnerable citizens in our country. So I think life safety and fire prevention is still a primary part of our mission, and they will still be a high priority for me as U.S. Fire Administrator.

2. On the heels of that, my second priority would be to more aggressively and assertively pursue something more meaningful that will curtail the tremendous loss of life to firefighters and injuries to firefighters. It’s strange to me, Tim, that we can have great success in reducing property loss and loss of lives to civilians and injuries to civilians, but with all of our codes and standards and technology and all of our improved PPE and firefighting equipment, our line-of-duty deaths and injuries are consistently the same year after year after year. And I believe that a proposal I made about 4 or 5 years ago now—to develop a vulnerability assessment model whereby local fire departments perform a self-assessment to identify their areas of greatest vulnerability for injuries and deaths and develop, in partnership with their city governments or municipalities or boards, strategic plans to budget for things that reduce those vulnerabilities—and then hold everybody accountable, from federal government to local government and even the individual firefighters to doing the things that we worked so hard to do to prevent LODDs and injuries. As our friend and colleague Gordon Graham has said through the years, “If it’s predictable; it’s preventable.” There are no new ways to get firefighters injured or killed. We know that. We just don’t seem to have the backbone to do what we need to do to make sure that it slows down and ultimately stops, so I want to aggressively pursue that and be more assertive with my communications to our nation’s fire service and fire service leaders as it relates to LODDs and injuries.

3. I believe professional development still a high priority for the USFA through the National Fire Academy. The tremendous rate of attrition that we experience in career and volunteer fire services has to be offset by increasing programs that instill training and education in firefighters at every level, and one of the greatest success stories of the USFA is the NFA’s role in doing that. Last year we trained more than 115,000 people off campus through various means and about 8,000 on campus. We need to increase our outreach in training and development and really begin to focus on fire officer training and chief officer training in more ways than we have in the past. We’ve got to increase the capacity on campus because there’s no replacing the on-campus experience through not only the training but the relationships you build with colleagues all over the world there.

4. The No. 4 priority, I believe, is the U.S. Fire Administrator should strengthen and enhance its role as the facilitator for the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the American fire service is prepared to serve as a federal asset when the need arises to deploy fire departments in times of a national disaster. Of course, we have had tremendous support from fire service organizations since hurricanes Katrina and Rita in establishing interstate and intrastate mutual aid agreements. We need to test those systems to make sure they are going to work and then improve their efficiency through exercises and other means, and I believe the U.S. Fire Administrator has a significant role in that so that when that need does arise, the fire services rises to the occasion and that our operations are flawless. And another part of that is to strengthen the USFA’s role in ESF4 and not have the U.S. Department of Forestry as the primary leader at the federal level for ESF4. We need to have an equal share in the partnership and leadership of ESF4 at the federal level.

5. The last thing that I want to offer as a goal is, as U.S. Fire Administrator, I believe after now 6 years, if my math is right, of the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (AFG) and the SAFER Program, it’s time for the fire service to evaluate the impact of about $5 billion of federal funds to enhance local fire departments’ capabilities in their communities. I know that we’ve had a substantial positive impact on enhancing local capabilities. I believe to strengthen the programs for the future, we need to begin producing evidence that that is actually taking place and not have someone initiated by some other entity to do that for us without our input. I believe the proof is going to be in the pudding that we’ll be able to show Congress and our presidential administration that AFG and SAFER are making a difference, not only at the local level but they are also enhancing the fire service’s capability to be a viable and potent asset during times of national disasters. And finally, on that note, the assessments should really evaluate whether there are any fire departments in the United States of America that exist today that still do not have adequate PPE, SCBA, fire hose and basic fire equipment that not only improve their firefighting efficiency, as those programs were designed to do, but will work to reduce their vulnerabilities to LODDs and injuries. And if we do discover that even after 6 years some of those needs still exist, we need to figure out a way to push those grant applications to the top or identify departments that have not even applied for a grant in those areas for some reason or another, help them out and get them the funds to resolve those basic needs of fire departments at the local level. And I guess that’s enough for right now, but those are, I would say, Tim, my top 5 for now.

TS: Chief, I would say that those are absolutely some lofty goals, and we are absolutely supportive of each and every one, certainly firefighter safety, reduction of lives lost and the educational side. All those things are huge projects and a huge undertaking for the fire service in general. How we can we best help you, as the newly appointed U.S. Fire Administrator? How can the fire service in general step up and make sure you’re successful in your endeavors?

KC: We’ve been saying it for a long time but it’s now time to really step up to the plate and get it done, and that is to serve as a unified voice to the federal government. I see one of my primary roles to Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and the FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate is to be the fire service advocate to the federal government. And for me to be a credible and potent advocate to the federal government, I need to be able to speak on behalf of the American fire service in a unified, singular voice on their behalf, and I believe we can do that, and I want to be in the front, leading that effort for us to be in unity on these particular issues. FireRescue magazine can play a significant role in that in helping to encourage—through editorials and choosing select authors—those who believe in that philosophy of fire service unity, across career, combination, volunteer and other issues that have a tendency to cause us to separate our perspectives on our needs. I believe you can play a significant in helping us to unify the fire service voice at the federal level. But also, FireRescue magazine can help us to increase the marketing initiatives that I’ve talked about with respect to fire prevention and fire safety education programs and reducing LODDs and injuries.

TS: Chief, I can tell you with certainty that we’re ready and willing, and we will do our part to support you in any way that we possibly can. Again, you’ve got a number of challenges ahead of you. One of the things I’d like to ask of you is—and I very well understand your career experiences and such—but for some of the other folks, what do you think is going to be the biggest thing that you look back on to be the supportive mechanism for the future of your career? What experiences in your career, whether it be in Shreveport or Atlanta or your affiliation with the IAFC, that is going to be the most supportive for you to accomplish your goals?

KC: That’s a very tough question to answer. It would be when I was in Shreveport, I took on the responsibility of leading a strategic planning initiative for a fire chief who had 2 years left and he wanted to leave the department on a positive note. It was a very unpopular direction for him to take since our department was really accustomed to autocratic leadership, and we were accustomed to the fire chief making all the decisions and establishing all the plans, and he wanted to go to a participative form of strategic planning and decision making. He wanted a strategic planning team to lead that effort. Because that was such a paradigm shift and he was 2 years from retiring, it was a very unpopular move for him to make, and it was very unpopular for someone to step up to the plate and get on board with him and to lead that effort. But I decided that I would do it, and it was a rough road for the first year or so, but we began to experience some victories from some low-hanging fruit and it began to catch on. There were indicators that it was really making a difference. People actually had a voice that was listening to them. And then we had another year of just accomplishing tremendous things. So after 2 years of that, it gave me, as an assistant chief training officer, the opportunity to demonstrate some leadership at that time, during some tough times, and it paved the way for me becoming fire chief of the Shreveport Fire Department. From that, Tim, I developed this mindset of not being satisfied when things get comfortable. I have this thing about me where I get uncomfortable when things get comfortable, and I deliberately do things to disrupt my comfort zone. And I believe that has really caused me to have the leadership tenacity I needed here in the city of Atlanta for the last 20 months to lead us through these tough economic times, and I’m carrying that same spirit with me to the USFA as the fire administrator.

TS: Chief, we know you’ve got a full plate, and you’re in the transitional phase of moving from Atlanta to D.C. to take on your new role, so we don’t want to take too much of your time. Again, I want to express on behalf of FireRescue magazine and all our readers our extreme appreciation for everything you’ve done for us and will continue to do in the future. And it’s absolutely an honor to congratulate you on your new appointment. Lastly, I want to ask if there’s anything else you’d like to say to the listeners out there about your appointment and your future goals.

KC: I just want to express my gratitude to President Barack Obama and to Secretary Janet Napolitano and Fire Administrator Craig Fugate for having the confidence in me to lead the United States Fire Administration. And I want to ensure the American fire service and all our stakeholders that are directly or indirectly involve d with what we do in our honorable profession, that I will give all that I have as an American to service as United States Fire Administrator. My experience has allowed me to be very informed on what the issues are that face our industry, and I know that we have the brain power collectively across all of our differences to take the American fire service through the United States Fire Administration to a whole different level and I’m honored today to lead that effort. I want to also encourage all of our firefighters to continue to be diligent in efforts to protect life and property but don’t forget your life in the process of protecting the lives of others. Wear your seatbelts and do the right thing in emergencies. We do have a responsibility to save lives but we have a responsibility to go home at the end of the shift, back to our families and loved ones. And then finally I want to express my gratitude to the leadership of FireRescue magazine for your continued diligence in marketing the value of the fire service to ensure domestic tranquility in our nation and I appreciate what you’ve done for our industry and I love the partnership that we’ve enjoyed over the years. I look forward to working with you in the future.

TS: Chief, thanks again and we wish you the best of luck and know that we stand behind you 100 percent.

KC: Thanks a lot, Tim.

Editor's Note: Don't miss Chief Cochran's presentation, "Becoming Fully Involved," at the Fire-Rescue International General Session on Friday, Aug. 28.

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Comment by Nick Morgan on August 19, 2009 at 12:13am
Congratulations Chief Cochran!! Keep up the good work!
Comment by Stephen Delisle Miller on August 18, 2009 at 3:23pm
As a young man (teenager) I enjoyed the series "Emergency"! Dream, live your dream, sir!

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