How to improve interagency relationships in public safety
Focus on front-line operations, structured scalability and agency-specific enhancements
By Todd Sheridan
When public safety agencies work across organizational and jurisdictional boundaries to carry out response and administrative functions, they create a strong alliance that benefits citizens with a coordinated deployment, complementary skills, improvement in the use of financial resources, and enhancement of public perception of their emergency services. Sometimes, deteriorating relationships between agencies negatively affect citizens, front-line staff, financial positioning and the public perception of each organization. Citizens expect a seamless and coordinated response. To ensure a coordinated effort, leaders need to work collaboratively to develop win-win situations for all agencies.
To maximize this effort, all response agencies need to work together – not only the traditional EMS, fire and police, but also federal, state, non-governmental organizations, not-for-profit agencies, hospitals and publicly elected officials. These sectors play key roles during and after events, and we should be including them in our planning efforts.
Planning efforts should draw from all agencies’ knowledge and skills, enhancing the level of service collectively provided, while at the same time honoring each specific agency’s responsibilities. Being inclusive before any event allows for formal and informal relationships to be established.
Three areas that can be enhanced by positive working relationships among agencies: 1) a seamless front-line operation, 2) a structured scalability and 3) agency-specific enhancements. Within each area, we will show the benefits that can be gained through collaboration and steps agencies can take to enhance their current situation.
1. Seamless frontline operations
No matter what challenges exist among agency administrators, front-line staff need the proper tools to complete their tasks. To complete tasks on the front line, administrators need to work together to remove barriers that may diminish the chance of success.
There may be barriers in places that administrators may not directly see or may not have been made aware. This may be because staff perceive an “us-vs.-them” or “this is how it’s always been done” attitude, so front-line staff may not understand how to articulate their thoughts or know the options that administrators can provide to make their job easier.
Administrators need to communicate with staff and pay attention to the little things that could make the job better. Key areas include integrated equipment, cross-agency training for clinical and operational events, and command-and-control functions.
Once identified, administrators should develop an action plan to address the area of focus. This action plan should be distributed and explained to staff, showing how all agencies intend to collaborate to enhance their collective response efforts. The plan should also be used to demonstrate how front-line staff will be expected to work together in joint operations.
2. Structuring scalability
Agencies need to become strategic in the manner in which they purchase and deploy resources. Some of the largest costs are personnel and equipment.
As a single agency, it’s most likely difficult and cost-prohibitive to have the staff and other resources handle 100% of the volume and events. This is why well-planned interagency collaboration is critical. This allows each participating agency to cross-subsidize personnel and equipment during infrequent large volumes or events.
To ensure proper resource deployment and purchasing, agencies should develop working groups with administrative leaders to develop written strategic plans. By developing more formal strategic plans, agencies and localities can collaborate for the purchase of larger assets and place them in key areas for response. Furthermore, this allows agencies to collaborate for grants and leverage purchasing capabilities. This ultimately lowers or shares costs, and can become a force-multiplier by expanding the response capabilities of what an individual agency could handle. Finally, formal written agreements should be developed so agencies and localities understand the shared expectations for response, staffing and upkeep of equipment.
3. Agency-specific enhancements
Having the ability to link the coordinated efforts with each agency’s offerings can show stakeholders the value of interagency cooperation. Value may be shown in both quantitative and qualitative measures.
If an agency’s administrators are portraying a culture of inclusiveness and understanding with other agencies, front-line staff may begin to mimic their leaders’ behaviors. In the book “Managing Organizational Deviance,” authors Kidwell and Martin noted, “The social learning approach suggests a mostly instrumental understanding of what drives unethical behavior in organizations.” They argue that because of leaders’ “authority role and the power to reward and punish, employees will pay attention to and mimic leaders’ behavior, and they will do what is rewarded and avoid doing what is punished in the organization.”2 This shows that if leaders are portraying acts with other agencies as positive, so too will the staff.
Agency administrators and local leaders may notice an improvement in key performance measures and financial positions. When the closest, most appropriate resources are utilized to respond to an incident, administrators may see response times reduced. When the right resource is sent to the right place at the right time, the result is enhanced response capacity for all agencies. Furthermore, when agencies collaborate on staffing and purchasing other resources, the financial burden can be shared. A full evaluation of risks, volumes and locality needs should be completed to measure the participating agencies’ collective needs and determine whether an additional resource is warranted.
Working together to serve the community
As expectations evolve for public safety agencies, leaders need to think about more than just what each agency can handle, but also how it can partner with other agencies to enhance the delivery of service. Utilizing the NIMS framework, there is no hinderance of jurisdictional boundaries, only working teams sharing resources to ensure specific objectives are accomplished. This is accomplished by each agency maintaining its operational ability, while working collectively as a team to achieve the broader goals. Leaders can use this same thought process to improve how each agency delivers service, while collectively working with partner agencies to enhance the delivery of service to our communities.
1. Aaker, D. A., & Moorman, C. (2018). “Strategic Market Management.” Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
2. Kidwell, R. E., & Martin, C. L. (2005). “Managing Organizational Deviance.” Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.
About the author
Todd Sheridan, BS, is a senior associate with public safety consulting firm Fitch & Associates. Sheridan has served as the operations director for a large university medical center’s EMS system and previously worked in several high-performance fire and EMS agencies. Reach him directly at Tsheridan@fitchassoc.com.