August 21, 2019 | View as webpage

Change is never easy, but it is inevitable, and if we refuse to adapt to the times, then we’re destined to fail. The good news is that we’re not alone in these ventures, and there are many resources to help us manage change at our departments.

In this briefing, Linda Willing shares an insightful story about how to envision the path for fire department change, breaking the process into manageable parts. And Robert Rielage tackles a different type of change – a shift in focus for fire chiefs who need to accept their role in managing political risks.

Additionally, I encourage you to read our latest digital edition – Fire Service Connectivity in Action, sponsored by FirstNet, built with AT&T – which offers insights into what fire chiefs need to know about adopting FirstNet.

Don’t forget to share this Leadership Briefing with members of your leadership team or aspiring leaders.

Chief Marc Bashoor
Executive Editor, Fire Chief, FireRescue1

“Ride with your eyes”: Envision the path for fire department change
By Linda Willing

Years ago, I joined a group of firefighter friends to ride Kokopelli’s Trail, a 140-mile mountain bike trail that runs from western Colorado to Moab, Utah. The route is often technical and difficult, traversing desert, canyonlands and mountains. Like most people who do the ride, we planned to spend five days on the trail.

We were all incredibly psyched to begin, but by Day 3, things had changed. One guy had fallen and hurt his knee and was now riding in the sag wagon. Several people had drawn blood on the technical canyon sections. And as we got into the mountains, I found myself often walking my bike up steep inclines, feeling discouraged.

That day, the most experienced mountain biker in our group rode up beside me as I was once again pushing my bike through a twisting section of trail. I complained about my inability to stay in my pedals and maintain momentum despite my determination and fitness. She looked at me and said only, “Ride with your eyes.” It was one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, and not just related to mountain biking.           

This cryptic phrase did not mean that I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. It meant that I was paying attention, but to the wrong things.

On difficult or technical terrain, many riders tend to look at the obstacle directly in front of them – the protruding branch to be avoided or the boulder to be surmounted. This makes sense, as you must pay attention to these challenges or you won’t succeed in conquering them.

But if you only pay attention to what is right in front of you, the result may be success in the moment but failure in the longer run. Focus completely on the rock under your front tire, and you’re likely to miss the fact that a 90-degree turn is coming up 20 feet ahead. Unprepared, you lose your momentum and the next thing you know, you’re pushing your bike through the dust.

Fire departments often make this same mistake.

The longer view: Fire service planning and vision statements

Emergency response is by definition reactive – the alarm goes off and you run on it, the fire starts and you put it out. Of course, there is a prevention element in every fire department, but this element is often not prioritized. Emergencies keep happening, obstacles keep appearing, and there may seem to be little time to do more than just respond.

When fire departments do take a longer view, it may be to craft what are known as vision statements – a summary of where the organization wants to be in the more distant and undefined future. Such statements are often aspirational and answer one or more of the following three questions:

  1. Where do we want to go?
  2. What do we want to become?
  3. What do we want to accomplish?

The best vision statements are clear and simple, sometimes as concise as “We strive to be the best.” Others may be more detailed, such as “We are dedicated to be the finest community focused fire and rescue department that meets the ever-changing needs of our community while ensuring a safe and secure environment for all through professional development, unity and teamwork.

Envision the strategy – and take action

A good vision statement is important, but it is not enough. This is where “ride with your eyes” comes in. Yes, you want to look out ahead and see what might be imminent or possible, including opportunities or obstacles in the way. But what my friend meant with her advice was that it is not enough to just look at where you want to go. You must also envision how you will get there.

For a mountain biker or a fire service leader, this means envisioning the path you will take while still seeing where you are and where you want to be. And then once that vision is in place, you must act on it, live it, and realize it every step along the way.

It means doing research to uncover trends in your community. Where are people living? Where do they want to live? What are the demographics of your current population and what are they likely to be 10 or 20 years from now? What kinds of emergency calls do you currently respond to and what is your call load likely to be decades down the road? Is there technology in development now that could significantly help you in five or 10 years? Are there technological trends occurring that will make your life harder? What are other organizations, emergency services and otherwise, doing to anticipate these changes?

One example of seeing the path to the vision’s goals includes departments that are currently dealing with unsustainable increases in 911 calls. Instead of just working harder, some of these departments are looking at underlying causes that the organization can assist with in a proactive way. In addition to saying that they want to meet the changing needs of the service community, they are dedicating resources toward identifying what those needs are likely to be in the future.

Make vision a reality

Achieving a vision requires the ability to see in both the short and long term. Maintaining momentum to meet the challenges ahead necessitates seeing the path that will take you from the present to the future. Focusing time and energy on this process of transition is essential for vision to become reality.

Additional resources:
How fire chiefs can manage political risks
By Robert Rielage

I try to read all-new material written by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Since leaving government service, she has written several best-selling books, including “No Higher Honor” and “Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom,” and she has been working a professor of political science at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Her most recent book, done in conjunction with another Stanford professor, Amy B. Zegart, is entitled “Political Risk: How Businesses and Organizations Can Anticipate Global Insecurity.”

But what does this have to do with the fire service?” Everything! Think for a minute about all the fire service-related news you see on the news or social media.

For example, there was the video clip from a residential fire in Kern County, California, following the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck in early July. The clip shows a firefighter deploying a 2- or 2½-inch line on a fully involved attached garage fire. The crew chose a large-caliber hose, pumping from their existing tank water and engaging in a transitional attack. The result: a near knockdown in a matter of seconds with kudos to the department, the crew and to firefighters everywhere. This is the positive side of our work in the spotlight.

On the flip side, individuals, corporations, and local, state and federal governments are embroiled in controversy almost daily when someone posts a video, tweet or allegation that purportedly shows some sort of dastardly act worthy of our scorn. Many times, we’re only getting one side of the issue and occasionally the “evidence” has been edited to “prove” that something nefarious has occurred.

I believe that an unfortunately high number of fire service members have not even considered how they’d respond to such allegations, let alone how they might prevent them from happening in the first place. Enter Ms. Rice’s recent book and the several steps that are needed to understand, analyze, mitigate and respond to any such newsworthy situations.

Understand fire service political risks

One thing for us in the fire service to consider is that, despite our best efforts, we are NOT everyone’s hero. We need to understand that political risk is real, even for the fire service. The sooner we determine the degree of scrutiny that we can tolerate before needing to make a formal response, the better prepared we may be.

Here’s an example: After a large fire in an apartment complex, my department was confronted with an allegation that the department took 20 minutes to arrive. A simple call to our dispatch center gave our chief officer the real-time answer that our first unit arrived within four minutes of the dispatch center receiving the first call.

A follow-up investigation indicated that the occupant in the apartment of origin fought the fire for several minutes before leaving the apartment and requesting a neighbor to call the fire department, only the neighbor didn’t have a cell phone. So only after the fire had blown out the living room window was a call to 9-1-1 received from a third party.

While this is a relatively simple example, it highlights that perception isn’t always reality and we need to be prepared to respond. What “blind spots” – those unanticipated “gotcha” moments – might exist for your department? Allegations of misconduct on inspections? Sexual harassment? Having an awareness of those issues and a game plan as to how they would be handled, preferably based on written standard operating procedures (SOPs) is essential.

Analyze the fire department’s political risk

The analysis of your political risk starts by answering several questions:

  • How deeply has your department explored your potential for political risk?
  • Have you discussed these potential threats with both superiors and your subordinate officers?
  • How rigorous of potential political risk analysis have you undertaken?
  • Have you played “war games” with your staff, pitting accusers against the “good guys” to see what might work for the best outcome?
  • Can we integrate the potential political risk factors we may face into our day to day awareness of potential crises?

Mitigate your fire department’s political risk

Prior to the “unthinkable” happening, does the department discuss pending decisions and have someone play the role of Devil’s Advocate to help analyze the new policy or decision before it becomes policy, essentially considering the “ripple effect” throughout the department (i.e., the heartburn the decision may cause to the community, your elected officials, or members of the department who may vocally object).

That doesn’t automatically mean that the decision is bad or not the correct one for the community, our elected officials or the department, but it does mean we need to be prepared to defend the decision with facts that show the department has made a tough but correct decision for all parties involved and has the means to back up why it should be done.

This may be as easy as having working groups with all interested parties that hash out the new decision beforehand so that everyone’s voice has been heard and understands how it will affect them as stakeholders.

Respond to political risks facing the fire department

Experience is the best teacher, so learning from our “near misses” is essential. For example, if, after receiving their input, a particular citizen’s group, elected official or individual is usually against any change that he or she hasn’t initiated, then past experience should give the department a preview of what to expect and how to plan for the objections from that previous experience.

If this group or individual lives and dies by statistics, then have the appropriate stats on hand to clearly lay out the rationale for the policy or change.

Cultivate strong working relationship with your local media

No matter how you prepare, someone will probably talk to the media in an attempt to dissuade your policy or change. Expect it! While some members of the media, especially in smaller markets, long for that one story that will rocket them to stardom in one of the 10 biggest media markets, most reporters and especially their news directors are looking for balanced reporting on crucial issues. Having a good working relationship with your local media is important. They may not side with you initially, particularly after hearing a one-sided account from a citizen, but they should be interested in airing your side of the story and giving you a reasonable time to gather the facts for your response.

What to do when political risk strikes

A prime example of political risk to a fire department occurred a few months ago in Michigan. The incident was reported by Dave Statter, in his blog, Statter911.

At a well-involved residential fire, two firefighters paused to take a selfie that created an immediate whirlwind political risk for their department. The incident was serious for three reasons:

  1. The selfie was taken at a working fire that was clearly not under control;
  2. The selfie was then posted to social media for everyone to see, including neighbors, family and friends of the residents; and
  3. The fire resulted in two fatalities, prompting many to question whether the selfie was taken at a point when there were other tasks that needed to be done that could have made a difference in the outcome.

If, despite of your best efforts, that unforeseen political risk comes from out of nowhere, there are several quick steps that can be initiated:

  • Try to stop the bleeding. In other words, don’t just make a preliminary statement acknowledging that a problem has arisen, and that more information will follow.
  • Activate your department’s crisis team and have them assess the problems from all angles.
  • Communicate to the media, social outlets and officials what the relevant issues are, and what matters within your story, thereby reinforcing the values and trust that are the hallmarks of your department.

It’s only a matter of time … be prepared!

Applying sound practices to your potential political risks is another evolving task for the chief, officers and every department member. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll need it.

Stay safe!

Additional resources:
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1. Fire-Rescue International 2019 Coverage. FireRescue1 editors attended FRI 2019, where “Leadership Never Stops.” Check out our on-site coverage of educational sessions, award news and Chief Marc Bashoor’s IAFC-TV interview in which he highlights FireRescue1 editorial coverage to watch for this year.
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