Transition, Merger, Consolidation: Managing Fire Service Changes

By Peter Bryan

Fiscal conditions are causing many public safety agencies to consider and act on changing their public safety service through a transition, merger, consolidation, or the formation of a contract for service or public safety department. Has the time come for the fire service to embrace these changes? Are the fiscal conditions likely to remain in the current or a declining condition for several years? How do we evaluate providing public safety service with decreased recurring revenues or increasing costs above anticipated revenues? How can we continue to match resources with the demand for services?

Many fire service leaders never get the opportunity to make the "change vs. retain local control" decision and are directed to plan for and implement these changes. What steps or process can be used to ensure the likelihood of a positive outcome?

No matter what name is given to the "change" your department may be facing, there will certainly be a significant number and level of impacts to the current organization and operations. Softening the impact of service-level changes to the public should be a priority. Personnel will be affected, and how to minimize those affects should also be a top priority.

If the decision has not already been made, what needs to be considered in evaluating options?

This article presents a series of steps or a process (not in priority order, but in a listing format for simplicity; many steps occur simultaneously in a process). This process can be used on a planning and cost-analysis basis or a planning and implementation project schedule. It does not presume that the "change" is right or wrong, good or bad. This process predisposes that the change process should be as complete, as accurate, as objective, as feasible, and as effective as possible.

Step 1

Bringing any significant change into a fire service agency generally involves the formation of a planning or steering "task-force" or committee(s) with specific purpose(s) and authority. Labor, management, and support personnel should be at the table. Personnel should be available for the tasks and meetings, have the authority to make decisions, and represent ALL the stakeholders who will be affected. Generally, the public is represented by a senior chief officer; oftentimes, there may be someone from the manager's or elected officials' office participating.

Determine the necessary planning organizational structure and the INITIAL number and make-up of the task force or committees. Determine to whom they report and their scope and authority. If the change is significant in scope and complexity, developing an organizational chart, reporting format (action minutes, and so on.), and timelines will be important.

Step 2

Determine the tasks to be discussed, listed, and completed by each task force. Prepare a "tracking" listing that can be distributed and shared. Electronic documents such as Word, Excel, and SharePoint (http://sharepoint.microsoft.com/en-us/Pages/default.aspx) are good examples. Project (http://www.microsoft.com/project/en-us/project-management.aspx) is another example of a business-based program, and there are many others. Choose the one that is the easiest to use for all the stakeholders. Ensure the software is as complete as needed (don't over invent; there will be enough "real" work ahead without cumbersome task tracking, too).

Develop an initial timeline with any known deadlines and milestones. The steps in any process may change their specific timeframes, but the end timeframe often can be estimated based on contractual or fiscal deadlines.

Develop a listing of "decision points" that need to determined, whether within the scope and authority of the individual task force or another. Many decisions will not be known or cannot be made initially, but their need will be evident as you get further along in the process.

Meet regularly--as often as necessary to complete discussions, make decisions, and perform tasks that the timeframes and the master timeline. Determine the "standardized" format for recording the meeting. I suggest using "Action Minutes," a method in which you list only the issue, any pertinent facts, the decision, responsible person(s), and timeline. Try not to get bogged down in recording all the who-said-what stuff, since most task force or committees are not legal entities and are not subject to any rules of order or public agenda and meeting rules.

Determine chairpersons, perhaps alternate chairs, and the minimum quorum necessary to meet, discuss, and make decisions, as APPROPRIATE for each agency.

"Transition Meetings" are very important. They involve various key personnel for various meetings. They function primarily to ensure that the task lists are correct and contain the information needed and to review timelines. Much like Step 1, ensure that key personnel attend (generally there will be fewer personnel at the transition meetings and decisions are not affected; they are done for more of a "scheduling" and timelines purpose).

Step 3

Begin "beta-testing" or implementing decisions as soon as feasible. Waiting until later to begin implementation of various steps, tasks, or processes will not only lengthen the timeline, but some tasks will rely on and be affected by other tasks (firefighters well know that our daily tasks and processes are interrelated and interdependent). As an example, remember that if there is going to be a change in dispatch, systems like radios, station alerting, public service answering point coordination, automation, and so on. are interdependent. You may likely find that once you begin a task, it will need revision or tweaking along the way.

Tracking the process and designating milestone accomplishments for each substantial task is very important. Use some form of tracking and progress "form" reporting to keep members on task, forward looking, and just plain knowing where things stand and what needs to be accomplished.

Tasks will change along the process, and the number of tasks will increase as additional items are identified.

Step 4

Share the information in a regular and timely manner. This step is much like a major incident or disaster that affects the whole community; regular, "real-time" information is needed to keep the unknown/what-if problems to a MINIMUM. Firefighters are very adept at "inventing information" if we do not know the facts. Keep the "inventing information" to the absolute minimum. There will always be some things that cannot be perceived, but effective and thorough planning, as well as effective communication, can limit the unknowns and the number of problems that pop up. Let ALL agency personnel know the information and "what-is-going-on" decisions as often and as soon as feasible. If possible, lessening the fears of change for personnel should be a priority. The agency personnel generally deliver the day-to-day service, and keeping them informed is critical. Use as many sources for distributing information to personnel as feasible (hearing the same thing three or more times is so much better than not hearing even small details and inventing information and stirring up fears).

Undoubtedly, the managers and elected officials will need to know information, too. The level of details that they ask for, want, expect, or demand will vary from agency to agency. They, too, are capable of inventing information.  If sufficient information is not easily available to them, elected officials are also very capable of creating "talking points" for the media (especially during election years or when controversial issues or "split-vote" decisions arise).

The public we serve will also want information, and they rightfully deserve to know what is going on and what effect the "change" will have on them. Early on, determine objectively if there will be a change in service level to the public (easier said than done). Something that has worked for agencies going through change is to provide regular and "objective" press or media releases covering a range of subjects of interest to the public. Regular can be as often as weekly or biweekly, in some cases. Another positive step for some agencies has been to coin a phrase or slogan for the change. You cannot always "make lemonade from lemons" in all change scenarios, but when you can, media coverage can benefit you by calming the public and their fears of the unknown. For example, if the senior citizens of your area even think that "their paramedic service" will not be there for them, they can certainly get rowdy. The more known information, the fewer outraged public speakers at the elected officials' public meetings.

Step 5

Let's turn to personnel issues (once again, we're not dealing with these steps in priority order, but sometimes identifying personnel issues requires some of the aforementioned steps to begin, since often personnel issues are being identified and solutions determined).

Determine what, if any changes could, will, and WILL NOT occur. Will there be any decrease in personnel? Will their employment be switched to another employer? Will pay or benefits change? Is it feasible to offer other employment to personnel in another department? Can ALL personnel be incorporated into the change? Will "fixing-pay-rate-at-higher-than-ordinary-until-others-catch-up" provisions be an issue? Are there contacts that will need to be negotiated? Can those negotiations be accomplished (most negotiations are lengthy processes and time frames must be estimated and anticipated well in advance)?

These are just some of the possible issues and questions.

Step 6

Change does not come without some costs. Will the costs in the following year(s) be different? Will the department's fiscal needs be met? How much will be necessary to plan or implement any change? Will there be capital (one-time) costs only? Who gets to make the final decision on fiscal issues, and who gets to make public any cost savings? Will there be one source of fiscal information?

These, too, are generally issues and questions that will be agency specific.

Step 7

Operational considerations can or may be the longest list of tasks. Do not limit the brainstorming process for this task initially. It is much more effective to get too many tasks listed than to forget something that is dependent on something else. Consider letting EVERONE in the agency view and comment on the operational tasks. This is where "how we get it done" affects just about everyone. The more eyes on the subject early on, the better. Combine and assign tasks where appropriate.

Attached is a list of some operational items. It is not complete; it just provides a starting point:

Step 8

  • Training
  • Personnel development
  • Orientation.

Everything we do in the fire service necessitates training if we are to reach our full potential. EVERYONE will need various levels of training and orientation. If changes are implemented, each task, especially the operational ones, needs to be considered for training, personnel development, or orientation. Each training subject may or may not apply to everyone.

Using the "academy" approach to the training issues can often be an effective step in the overall change process, if the change is to be effectively implemented. We use academies for initial training, and we use academies for mid-level and top-level training. Why not consider it for processes that involve change, too?

**

Change in the fire service is not easy. Firefighters deliver emergency and support services every day to our public or citizens. We do it best when we work as a team, know how to do it the best we can, and when we effectively communicate throughout the job. Change in an organization is not easy, especially when it affects our personnel. We may not have a choice in the change, just how we implement it. If change is inevitable for your department, then implementing it effectively and producing a successful outcome may be something you need to embrace, as difficult as it is.

Peter BryanPETER BRYAN, a retired chief and a fire protection consultant, is a 37-year veteran of the fire and emergency services. He served as chief for the Norco, Monrovia, Rancho Cucamonga, and Wheatland (CA) Fire Departments. He is experienced in fiscal management; revenues and fees; and wellness, fitness, and workers' compensation programs.

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