Photo of Aachen, Germany

Like no other time before, local governments in the United States have been drawn onto the global stage. This is especially the case with the work of fire departments and their shared work around the world to protect the public from such threats as fire, hazardous waste spills, or even terror attacks. These common priorities, along with the complex aspects of their work, compel more formal and systemic exchanges of data, information, policies, technologies, and personnel.

But experience has revealed that global cooperation at the local level in general—but especially through the very complex and technical work of fire departments—is not as easy as “add water and stir.” The technically complex, legally complicated, and politically intricate programs guiding hazardous waste response, search-and-rescue training, building code design, or terror attack response planning differs greatly between Arlington County, Virginia, in the United States; Aachen, Germany, in Europe; or Guelph, Ontario, in Canada. Creating international exchanges between fire departments that lead to outcomes benefitting Main Street is critical, especially in this age of local governmental budget and resource scarcity.

However, there are some encouraging stories emerging, especially across the Northern Virginia (NOVA) region, in which multiple fire departments have been working internationally for years and in contexts that point to a pathway for further national replication. The following summarizes that the work by the fire departments of Arlington County, Fairfax County, and Loudoun County, highlighting innovative forms of engagement with counterparts in Europe, collaboration with locally based research and academic partners, and involving high-priority topics.

Arlington County — Aachen, Germany

Since 2014, under the umbrella of the Arlington County Sister City partnership with Aachen, Germany, the Arlington County Fire Department has worked with other fire departments to share programs and operations innovations about hazardous materials cleanup, bomb squad remediation, and emergency response.

Three separate delegations of firefighters from Aachen have spent time in Arlington to exchange perspectives about safety codes for homes and buildings, flood rescue procedures, and even active shooter responses. The partnership has involved exchanges about perspectives concerning technical differences deployed between departments to fight fires, promotion of safe designs and codes, and training strategies. Since the severe flooding in central Germany in 2021, in which approximately 300 lives were lost, there is interest among both departments to pursue further exchanges related to training protocols, operational procedures, and response strategies.

Loudoun County — Main Taunus Kreis, Germany

Since 2015, the Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue Program has pursued exchanges with counterparts from the Main-Taunus-Kreis district in Germany, an area northwest of Frankfurt.

Several small-scale peer-to-peer exchanges of personnel at the staff and management level have focused on information sharing about incidence and emergency response operations. Loudoun County Deputy Chief Randall Shank spent a week at the Main-Taunus-Kreis emergency communications and operations centers and training facilities. In 2017, four firefighters from Main-Taunus-Kreis toured Loudoun County to study the training academy, as well as the emergency and communications center operations.

Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department — George Mason University Partnership with Analytical and Geospatial Research

Since 1986, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department (FCFRD) has been one of two departments in the United States tasked by the U.S. Agency for International Development to undertake sudden-onset disaster response around the world. Over 200 paramedics, engineers, firefighters, and emergency planners from Fairfax County are assigned to be prepared to aid in emergency response efforts around the world. Staff from Fairfax County also actively take part in multiple global coordination efforts to coordinate disaster response.

Moreover, since 2020, George Mason University (GMU) and FCFRD have undertaken a unique partnership that points to opportunities for a special global exchange related to cross-national applied science and technology cooperation that supports local emergency response efforts. Graduate-level students and faculty working in data analytics from GMU have partnered with the FCFRD’s Data Analytics Strategy Management Division to help graduate students working toward their degrees use real-world data in their capstone projects to apply their education. The students and faculty from the Volgenau School of Engineering access, analyze, and geospatially portray topics such as volume and nature of calls for service related to socioeconomic data and hazards response. This work has the opportunity to extend to other fire departments across the region and via global connections with counterpart academic and research centers in Aachen or the Frankfurt region.

The Road Ahead: NOVA’s Fire Departments as a National Model for Global Engagement

The global trends pulling the fire departments of local governments further onto the global stage look to accelerate for the short and long term. This is especially the case for important local and national issues such as climate change, building safety and design, or terror response planning.

The current work by NOVA’s fire departments offers a solid basis on which future work can build as well as inform the work of other fire departments across the country. The research partnerships between Fairfax County and George Mason University highlight a particularly special opportunity as large research institutions such as Mason have multiple globally oriented faculty, research, and student exchanges that could involve bilateral foreign counterparts. Moreover, bilateral partnerships such as those between Arlington and Aachen could weave in existing high school exchanges and include a vocational training element.

Overcoming funding deficits, especially to facilitate future exchange of personnel, remains an issue for future collaboration. Future funding might be successfully applied to programmatic and research functions in strategic contexts. Partnering with the International Association of Fire Chiefs could represent a start. Themes for future work between counterparts abroad could involve data centers, fixed fire protection systems, accessibility for people with disabilities, and coordination of post-fire investigations and subsequent codes and training.

Conclusion

Global engagement by local governments is now a necessity and no longer voluntary. The engagement of fire departments is central to these efforts because of the profound importance of their work and the commonality of their missions. The stories of these Northern Virginia counties paint a remarkably positive and leading example for this work. Strengthening it and replicating it across the country seems to be a win-win for local fire departments, cross-national cooperation, and for the United States.

 

DALE MEDEARIS, PhD, is senior regional planner at the Northern Virginia Regional Commission.

JOHN MORRISON is data analytics strategy manager of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in Fairfax County, Virginia.

ELI RUSS is senior public safety planner of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments in Washington, DC.

JUSTIN TIRELLI is fire/EMS captain II and water rescue program manager of the Arlington County Fire Department in Arlington, Virginia.

JEREMY CAMPBELL, PhD, is assistant director for strategic engagement at the Institute for a Sustainable Earth at George Mason University.

RANDALL SHANK is deputy chief of the training division of the Loudoun County Combined Fire and Rescue Program in Loudoun County, Virginia.

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