Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 7, 2022.

Top photograph: US Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell speaks at a press conference in San Antonio. (Photo courtesy of USFA)

‘Doing It Better’
Lori Moore-Merrell, the new US Fire Administrator, discusses her agency’s priorities and challenges—plus, the collaborations she views as key to a successful future for the nation’s fire service 


With the world entering the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, with wildfires burning more fiercely than ever before, and with recruitment and retention challenges plaguing the fire service, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell took the helm at the United States Fire Administration (USFA) with no shortage of tasks on her plate. “I like to say I’ve been drinking straight from the fire hydrant, not even the fire hose, since I’ve been here,” the Tennessee native quips. 

RELATED PODCAST  In February, Moore-Merrell joined The NFPA Podcast to discuss her priorities for the US Fire Administration in 2022 and beyond

In October, the Biden Administration appointed Moore-Merrell, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, as the nation’s 11th US fire administrator, a position created as part of the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. Today, the Fire Administration operates as a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and its mission is to support fire and emergency medical services throughout the country by providing resources for training and sponsoring research. The administration also collects data on fires in the US and aids fire departments in carrying out fire safety public education and fire prevention programs. 

Moore-Merrell, who started her career as a paramedic with the Memphis Fire Department in 1987, holds a master’s degree in epidemiology and a doctorate in public health policy and law. She worked for 26 years at the International Association of Fire Fighters and, most recently, served as the president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute. 

Moore-Merrell’s science-based education and work experience is evident in her outlook as fire administrator. Doubling down on data collection efforts within the US fire service, for example, is one area she is particularly passionate about. “How do we help local fire and EMS departments use their own data for decision making and for evolving the services they provide to their communities based on need and based on risk?” she says. Instilling better data collection practices in the fire service is far from the only goal Moore-Merrell has for her administration—everything from creating a more inclusive fire service to readying any department to battle wildfires is on the table for 2022 and beyond. 

Moore-Merrell recently spoke with NFPA Journal about her administration’s priorities, the biggest challenges facing America’s fire service today, and how organizations like NFPA can help USFA achieve its goals. 

You’ve been fire administrator for a few months now. What are your initial thoughts? 

It’s been a learning experience. I was very familiar with USFA from the outside, working with them on many projects through the years. But the inside is a whole different perspective. One of the things that has struck me is that over time, USFA has sort of been pushed to the side, and I want to raise it up to its rightful place of respect and relevance. I really want to make us a part of the FEMA machine that is relevant. 

I certainly agree that the general public may not know USFA is a part of FEMA, or even what USFA does. 

That’s right. We’re part of FEMA, but we are also different from FEMA in some ways. FEMA mostly looks at response capability to disaster and how to prepare communities to be resilient after disaster. USFA is certainly a partner there, but our perspective is different. We strive to make sure the initial response and our nation’s first responders are prepared not only so they can respond to disasters but also to emergencies day to day. So we have a little bit of a different mission than FEMA, even though we’re housed inside FEMA. I’m trying to raise the awareness of that inside and outside of FEMA so we can gain some relevance as our own entity. 

Tell me about some of your administration’s priorities. 

One of the things that I have said from day one is that I want us to focus on being mission-driven. Our mission is to lead the fire service and emergency medical services, and in the past, sometimes that has not occurred. I’m starting by just evaluating everything we’re doing—everything from messaging to the fire academy to all of our fire programs—and asking the questions, “Are these things mission-driven, and can we do it better?” Let’s keep what we’re doing that works. Let’s look at new ways to communicate and facilitate change. From there, we’ll be looking at how we can improve preparedness and resilience for responders. Where FEMA focuses on those two things for communities, we focus on those two things for responders. 

Where does building first responder preparedness and resilience start?

We have to look at the changing landscape of what we call all hazards. As our society changes, the hazards and risks we respond to change. One example is wildfire. Wildfire season used to be a few months, and now it’s year-round in some areas. So we have to focus on that hazard, and I want to make sure we’re equipping our firefighters with appropriate PPE, appropriate equipment, and other resources. Another area I want to focus on is behavioral health. We have to continue building mental resilience among first responders. 

Tell me more about that. 

Part of the challenge is being cognizant of younger generations’ mental resilience. Their resilience level may not be the same as more senior people. When you’ve grown up with augmented and virtual reality, and you are thrust into a place of actual reality, it may be more than you’re prepared for. In this field, you’re going to see things you can’t unsee, and you’re going to see thing that aren’t normal. We have to provide mechanisms for helping responders process these bad things. 

Along the same lines, another thing I hope to address is creating psychologically safe workplaces. As responders, we have to be culturally aware of the challenges faced by underrepresented groups among our ranks. We may have to look at changing some of the more harmful aspects of our culture that were traditionally accepted—things like dark humor and jokes that may affect people differently when they aren’t like you. 

Your background includes work in data science. How will data play a role in your initiatives at USFA?

We have a data system, the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS), that is in dire need of updating and modernizing. It’s been 20 years since it’s been touched. We’re going to look at streamlining this data set and modernizing it with a cloud-based environment. We’re well on our way with that—I started that from day one. 

What role do you see NFPA playing in assisting with your administration’s priorities? 

We’re going to need an all-hands approach. I absolutely see NFPA as a partner in these initiatives, especially for building responder preparedness at the local level. If you look at NFPA codes and standards like NFPA 1710, [Standard for the Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Career Fire Departments], we know what the minimum crew size should be and we know what the minimum effective response should be for certain levels of hazards and risk. So understanding the role of NFPA to carry forward science to facilitate change and establish codes and standards that matter is certainly going to be part of this partnership. 

Some people have described the recruitment and retention issues facing the fire service, especially in rural areas, as a full-blown crisis. How do we address that?

What I hear from some people is, “I’m losing half of my recruits because they can’t make it out of school, they can’t learn.” Well, we have to take a step back and say, “Okay, how are you teaching them? What methods are you using?” Because if you’re still using lectures and PowerPoints and giving paper tests, you’re going to have some struggle. Younger generations may have never taken a paper test. We have to remember the generational differences in hiring and how they learn. So we have to explore new technologies for teaching. 

In some regions, looking at better pay and benefits could help. But at the same time, I know fire departments that pay well in regions with great benefits and they still have challenges recruiting. So it’s a multifaceted problem. 

In December, NFPA released its Fifth Needs Assessment Survey of the US Fire Service. As was the case with past surveys, it showed large gaps between the kinds of incidents firefighters respond to and what they’re actually trained in. How do we close those gaps? 

Departments have to train based on the risk in their community, and that risk can be determined by pulling together a community risk assessment—the important first step in creating a community risk reduction program. Look at the kinds of structures you have, look at how much haz mat response you’re doing, how much technical rescue, whether you have wildland/urban interface in your community, and then train on those things. I think we’ve got to continue to focus on prevention. We’ve got to focus on inspections and making sure that we are continuing that training often. 

What are some of the emerging hazards where you see a need for responder training? 

Certainly active shooter events is one. We’ve seen, during the pandemic, the strife and stress people have been under, the hatred some people have, and we have to understand threats have been revealed. Understanding and preparing for violent extremism, preparing for civil unrest, these things are important, and they need to be front-of-mind. One of the things we don’t focus enough on, in my opinion, is the use of fire and smoke as a weapon, and we need to pay more attention to that. These are the things that unfortunately exist today, and our leaders have to look at that.

We hear a lot about firefighter cancer. Will your administration work to address that? 

Absolutely. Firefighters have to understand that they are going to be exposed and are exposed [to potentially harmful environments] on a daily basis. Even if it’s just the apparatus pulling off the apparatus bay, you are getting exposed to diesel fumes. There’s a possibility of exposure every single day to carcinogens. We need to focus continually on helping firefighters understand for their own health and wellbeing what they need to do when it comes to preventing exposures and PPE contamination. 

In January, the US witnessed two of its worst residential fires ever—one in the Bronx that killed 17 and one in Philadelphia that killed 12. What lessons can be learned from those incidents?

We can’t let a tragedy go by without leveraging the lessons learned and trying to prevent it from happening again. One of the biggest lessons learned is that smoke alarms matter. Is that a lesson that we didn’t already know? No, but there’s still a lot of indifference in communities to listening to that message. If people have a nuisance alarm, they disassemble the alarm. We can’t do that. We’re going to have to find new ways of messaging to change the indifference and the feeling that “fires can’t happen to me” because it can happen to anyone. We’re going to have to do some brainstorming on that. For the first time, we’re bringing in some non-fire people from FEMA who work on community engagement and communicating about disasters to help us. I want to leverage some of how they are communicating about disasters to get our fire safety messages out. So we’re going to do some different things here to see if we can change some of the indifference in the community to fire safety. 

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor of NFPA Journal. All photographs: USFA