Toxic fire department, city relationships only hurt the community

Skip the “my backyard” mindset and instead advocate for consolidation, cooperation and collaboration


"I'm done, you're not going to make me lose any more sleep!," Chief Shon Branham told 12News. "We save property and lives, but we can't get any help from anybody across the street over there. I'm done with grief, I ain't getting paid for this!" 

This was the proclamation from the Pinehurst (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department fire chief after a seemingly protracted disagreement with the Pinehurst city officials. He had had enough.

While there’s always three sides to every story, at the heart of the matter was reportedly an effort to save money by reducing responses to medical calls. I’ll submit to you that what’s really at the heart of the matter is a disconnected, somewhat toxic political relationship that looks like a sad circus on the outside.

The Pinehurst (Texas) Fire Department recently went head to head with city officials, resulting in a mass resignation of firefighters (Photo/Pinehurst Volunteer Fire Department)
The Pinehurst (Texas) Fire Department recently went head to head with city officials, resulting in a mass resignation of firefighters (Photo/Pinehurst Volunteer Fire Department)

No winners, only losers

There are no winners in this matter, only losers. The community loses, the firefighters lose, and the politicians lose:

  • The community loses what should be a sense of pride in their volunteer fire department, not to mention in some cases losing the closest fire engine response.
  • The firefighters lose both in reputation and public trust, but I suspect also in their personal pride. I find it hard to believe that the entire group could arrive at the decision to just walk away from their community.
  • The politicians lose because this looks like an attack on volunteers and what is likely their “one free service” just went away.

I’ll go out on a not-so-long limb here and say there’s also a higher expectation from the community than that of essentially “taking your toys and going home.” This story provides a petri dish of issues to analyze, so let’s break it down.

EMS training troubles

A central point of the Pinehurst news is City Administrator Jerry Hood’s determination that volunteers responding to the medical calls was unnecessary, as those calls were already covered by the city's main ambulance service, and the fact that only two of the volunteer members held EMT-B certification. He emphasized that there are liability issues with having “unqualified, non-medically trained” personnel responding to EMS calls.

Now, the levels of required EMS-level training for volunteers varies widely across the country. First aid, CPR, EMR, EMT, paramedic, nothing – you name it, I’ve seen it vary from state to state, sometimes from county to county.

Isn’t 80% of a fire department’s call volume EMS-related? Shouldn’t the goal be that the volunteers are working toward meeting 80% of the volume 100% of the time?

Separately, we could spend volumes of time and energy discussing the personal, organizational and fiscal liabilities of providing service without certification/licensure.

Before the naysayers kick in, I have remained fully engaged in the process of building a combination fire/rescue department in rural central Florida, and I am fully aware of the amount of time necessary to obtain and maintain certifications and licensures. My time as a volunteer (started when I was 16) was coupled with two full-time jobs and two part-time jobs. So not only do I believe I’m qualified to comment, I’m also qualified to provide the analysis that helps us avoid these kinds of circus shows.

Collaboration with city officials

Have the volunteers worked with the EMS provider to discuss EMS training opportunities? I’d ask the chief, but he’s walked away. How about the connection with their local politicians? Has the chief taken time to build and mold a relationship with the local elected officials? Has the chief (and the members) focused on the mission?

I have long underscored the need for fire chiefs to be more politically astute and focus on the mission. It is critical for every chief to know that you CAN NOT do this job alone. Your title as “chief” DOES NOT grant you a high-and-mighty pass, any more than the election does for elected officials. You and your department should be here to serve the people, not your egos, your call stats or your pockets.

The politics I’m asking chiefs to understand isn’t the knocking-on-doors/running-for-office politics. I’m also not talking about who got elected as fire chief at last month’s meeting. Much like paid chiefs are appointed through an interview and/or selection process, I believe volunteer chiefs should be appointed by a board of experts within their organization, or by the town officials by recommendation from the fire department board, not voted on by a popular vote at a firehouse meeting. I’m talking about the politics of leading your members through the maze of government while always focusing on the mission.

Let’s look at four questions chiefs should ask as they work to be a fire-chief-politician:

1. What makes your politicians tick?

Fire chiefs must understand the important issues for your mayors, commissioners, councilpersons or selectmen, or whatever ilk of officials you deal with. Ensuring you remain industry-relevant and understanding the nature of your local politics is critical to your success. Further, we may not like to think in terms of political affiliations, but it is helpful to understand both your conservative and liberal constituent needs/desires as you work through understanding what makes your community’s politicians tick. Many chiefs need to work on figuring this out. Time after time, we see unnecessarily embarrassing scenarios like this unfold in front of us.

2. Where is the compromise?

What is the real issue here? Was the dramatic public spectacle of turning in the gear and turning their backs on the community truly a result of the council saying they were saving $1,100? Was that the hatchet? I doubt it. My challenge here is to get to the root issue. From the information we see, the root issue seems to be the lack of medical training for the volunteers. If that’s the root cause, let’s figure out the compromise to establish at least the path to get the training needed within a certain amount of time – all so this could become a win/win, instead of a lose/lose.

3. Are you being a leader – or a bully?

Leaders understand what it takes to get people where they need to be – which, of course, may not be where everybody wants to be. The leader shows the way, is the way, and demonstrates by example what it takes to compromise and attempt consensus. The statement, “I'm done with grief, I ain't getting paid for this” shows a lack of leadership. I’m not talking about being a “nice guy” or everybody’s friend. Leadership is almost never about friendship. I am talking about being professional and always rising to meet challenges, instead of dropping down to join the fray. People need to have faith in your ability to get things done for the betterment of the organization and the community.

4. Are you telling your story – or are others telling it for you?

In the case of Pinehurst, it’s clear who told the story. What is your social media presence? Do you use it for progressive and positive reinforcement? That’s how you build trust and support, highlighting the positive and being honest where you need help. If you’re not telling your story, someone else will definitely tell it for you.

Final thoughts on Pinehurst and politics

As reported, the City of Orange Fire Department has agreed to provide coverage to Pinehurst – that’s one thing right! It is 2.8 miles from the city of Orange fire station to the Pinehurst fire station. This becomes an age-old discussion in the fire service, both from a municipal and from a volunteer model perspective: How many stations do we need? When there were horse-drawn steam engines, having stations in every town or every community was critical to a quick and effective firefighting force. I think many of us would love to have a fire truck in our back yard (and if we had residential sprinklers, we just about would!). When Ben Franklin formed the country’s first volunteer fire department, the Union Fire Company, he was using the backyard concept, albeit in bucket brigades. Franklin was an insurance agent and formed the department as a way to limit his insured property losses. If he could have had buckets and water at every house, he would have!

The reality today is that we don’t have horse-drawn steam engines, yet we still model our deployment based on municipal boundaries and “my backyard” mentalities. I fully understand the municipal responsibilities and the “who-pays-what” of it all – I experience it every day. However, what’s RIGHT is that the fire service should be working with EMS to coexist in single delivery point facilities, in strategic locations that provide the best coverage possible to as many communities as possible.

We should be working together to form partnerships, not build walls at the city borders. If we use the ISO “5-mile rule,” allow overlap for depth and volume, and do what’s right for everyone in the community, we could maximize our resources, save HUGE amounts of money, and provide better service – a win/win for just about everyone.

How does that apply to the situation in Pinehurst? The Orange fire station is 2.8 miles away, while the West Orange fire station is 2.1 miles in the same general direction from Orange. At some point, we should be advocating for consolidation, cooperation and collaboration. Taking the stance that you, “don’t get paid for this” and essentially picking up your toys and going home is not a 21st century leadership choice.

Let me conclude with two basic pieces of advice:

  1. Be part of the fire/EMS solution, which includes verifiable training and continuing education; and
  2. Learn the politics of your community and figure out what makes your politicians tick.

Those critical steps are essential to building a relationship that will never have to answer the question “when is enough, enough?”

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