The Fire Chief Project

You’re invited to join a long-term endeavor — one that aims to change the status of clean-water operators radically, permanently and for the better

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Forgive me if you already know this story. At a town board meeting I attended years ago, a few people in the audience complained about what they saw as excessive spending for the volunteer fire department. The town chairman invited the fire chief to respond.

The chief rose and stood tall in his uniform pants, crisp white shirt and gold badge. He described the level of fire and rescue service his department provided. Then he added, "We have 36 volunteers, all fully trained and certified, and they're all EMTs. They're ready to risk their lives 365 days a year, around the clock, to help protect your homes and families. I think you're getting by real cheap with a real good service."

The discussion was over right there, and not just because the chief made a compelling case. It was also over because he was the fire chief, an authority all but immune to challenge. Could the local wastewater treatment plant manager have settled such an issue so quickly and decisively? I often wonder.

Equal footing?

With that idea in mind, I hereby introduce The Fire Chief Project. Humbly run from my blog at, it has a simple, long-term goal — to see a day when:

Clean-water plant managers, superintendents and operators are held in the same esteem as the fire chief and firefighters.Boys and girls grow up wanting to be clean-water operators.

This means, above all, raising the profile of the profession — making sure the public understands the training and skills involved, the schooling, the licenses, the challenges, the dedication, the delicate mix of art and science that goes into any plant's operation and, above all, the importance of what the people and facilities do. After all, isn't clean water every bit as vital to a community as fire protection and emergency medical care?

Farewell, low profile

Now, I know a few things about clean-water operators, and one is that they didn't get into the profession for the glory. In general, they take pride in doing an essential job quietly and well. But there are a couple of compelling reasons to raise the profile.

First, treatment plants and infrastructure need attention. Water-quality requirements are getting stricter. Meeting them takes money, which the public these days is reluctant to let go of. No one wants taxes or rates to go up. The more respect and authority the profession has, the more likely the purse strings will be loosened.

Second, operators are about to retire in waves, and quality people are needed to replace them. That's why we need boys and girls (or high school kids anyway) to aspire to clean-water careers. They're more likely to do so if their image of the profession involves more than going to work in a dirty shirt and blue jeans.

It's time to share

So, what's The Fire Chief Project about? It's about sharing. Here's how it works: You send me information about things you and your team members have done to elevate your facility and profession in the community. I'll post them on The Fire Chief Project blog — not just for others in the profession to read (that's all well and good, but it's preaching to the choir), but for others in the profession to replicate in their own communities.

Suppose someone reports on a clean-water operator who led a fish habitat project downstream from a plant outfall. Imagine the impact if a dozen, or 50, or 100 other operators then undertake similar projects in their receiving streams, and make sure they are well publicized locally.

Or suppose that a clean-water agency annually recognizes one or two of its operators for outstanding performance, and holds a meet-and-greet for them at the plant during Earth Week. Or that a plant team takes down an old, plain, beat-up sign at the plant entrance and installs a brand new one that proudly illustrates the end products of what the plant and its people do: clean water and healthy aquatic life.

Much in a name

The Fire Chief Project is also about using the right names and terminology. Let's face the fact that right now plants are more closely connected in citizen's minds with what comes in than with what goes out. And why wouldn't that be the case when so many facilities are called "wastewater treatment plants" and, much worse, "sewage plants"?

I hate euphemisms as much as anyone — I don't like using words that make something awful sound less so. But in this business, we more or less have euphemisms in reverse — we use language that makes something great sound unappealing. What's wrong with calling your facility a "clean-water" plant instead of whatever you call it now? Because that's precisely what it is, right? It's about clean water, isn't it?

One national industry association grasped this concept years ago: What used to be the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies is now the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Isn't that much better?

Get on board

Now, of course municipal professionals tend to be unassuming people and (a bit paradoxically) proud to be so. The prevailing attitude seems to be, "I do my job, I do it well. That's enough. My peers notice. If no one else does, so be it." They aren't in the business of talking themselves up.

That's fine and honorable — except that the preservation and advancement of water systems depends in part on the public's appreciation of what the industry does. So maybe it's time to kiss the low profile goodbye. Maybe the profile of clean-water plant manager belongs right up next to that of the fire chief, the police chief and the Public Works director.

Only members of the profession can make that happen.

Please embrace the Fire Chief Project. For the good of the industry, send your contributions to, or give me a call at 877-953-3301. I promise to respond and to include them in the Fire Chief Project blog, and maybe even on the pages of TPO. Let's work together to pull the industry up in the eyes of the people who pay the bills, and in the process, help move the industry forward.


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