Community Involvement, Leadership, and Influence: A “Systems” Approach

BY DENNIS COMPTON

Some fire organizations play the politics game very well, but they also know its limitations if it’s their only approach to community involvement and influence.

A basic fire service tradition is the decentralized placement of resources and services into neighborhoods. Fire stations are the most visible example of government’s investment in the overall safety and well-being of the people in the community. Fire department members actually reside and work in the neighborhood surrounding the fire station seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

This reality provides a significant opportunity for the fire service, but many fire departments do not take full advantage of it. Fire departments should be active community participants in a mission-related way, involved in key decisions and supported by community leaders. This does not happen by chance and requires more than basic political involvement advocating for or against issues and candidates. This article explores a “systems” approach to integrating key elements of the fire and life safety mission into a community’s core leadership structure in a way that improves customer service and enhances the overall standing of fire department leaders with other community leaders.

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

Many fire departments view their community standing as an important element in the overall success of the organization, but some do not. The fire service cannot isolate itself from other organizations, issues, and participants and expect to prosper in a political arena that encourages partnerships, coalitions, and positive relationships. It needs help to be successful, and so does everyone else with a cause.

Fire departments have created many programs and activities designed to enhance their level of involvement in the community and improve customer and firefighter safety. Such programs include the following:

  • Fire station tours and open houses.
  • Blood pressure checks at fire department facilities, health fairs, and other events.
  • Child safety seat inspections (automobiles).
  • Immunization clinics.
  • A full range of Fire Prevention Week activities.
  • Active EMS Week activities.
  • Public education efforts that include targeting specific high-risk groups.
  • Explorer or cadet opportunities for youths.

  • Reading lessons, interviewing skills, and other development opportunities for youths at neighborhood fire stations.
  • Attendance at community events to educate and protect attendees.
  • The “Bomberos” (a program that sponsors Mexican firefighters to train in the United States) and similar groups and programs that target the needs of particular cultures.
  • “Connector” services designed to match customers with social service needs.
  • Participation in community service and charity events such as muscular dystrophy telethons, blood drives, Special Olympics, various holiday-related activities, and many other community service efforts.
  • Creating inclusive media relations programs.

These are only some of the many ways fire departments open their organizations, communicate (market) what they do, and get involved as active community partners and neighbors. They translate into visibility, compassion, and service and send a clear message that the fire department cares and is involved in the community.

COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP

Another key to success is the degree to which fire department leaders take advantage of community leadership opportunities. This includes not only the chief and the head of the employee (or volunteer) association but also fire department members. It involves leadership roles such as the following:

  • Participation in Rotary, Kiwanis, or similar organizations.
  • Service on community boards, commissions, and school boards.
  • Service on boards of nonprofit organizations that benefit the fire and life safety mission and community, whether national, state, regional, or local.
  • Participation in regional or cross-functional planning processes.
  • Service on coalitions formed by other organizations.
  • Open communications with elected officials.
  • Interaction with school systems, homeowner associations, and similar organizations.
  • Service as chairperson or coordinator for community service events.

Integrating fire department leaders into community leadership opportunities establishes these individuals and the fire department as “leaders” in the eyes of community partners. It is much easier to garner community support for fire department initiatives when fire department leaders assist others with their issues and initiatives. It represents good, sound business and marketing practices, which some fire departments have learned to do very well. It also truly benefits the community.

Fire and life safety education programs provide one of the most effective opportunities for community leadership in a way that is directly connected to the fire department’s mission. Programs designed to modify human behavior, and thus minimize injuries and deaths, are critical in protecting the people we serve. It is important that the lessons extend beyond fire safety and address other common causes of civilian injuries and deaths.

This approach should include the entire community, including those at highest risk, using a variety of delivery methods to reach the target audience. The key component, however, is a school-based curriculum designed to teach children appropriate behaviors to enhance fire safety. The National Fire Protection Association’s Risk WatchT program is tailor-made to meet this goal, using a community leadership and coalition model that can serve several other purposes. Risk WatchT is designed for preschool through eighth grade and incorporates the following eight lessons within a series of five modules: motor vehicle safety; fire and burn prevention; choking, suffocation, and strangulation prevention; poisoning prevention; falls prevention; firearms injury prevention; bike and pedestrian safety; and water safety.

BUILDING A COMMUNITY FIRE AND LIFE SAFETY INFRASTRUCTURE

Society has become accustomed to hearing about the components of various community infrastructure requirements. Transportation, utilities, and recreation are but a few examples of infrastructure issues that tend to regulate basic quality of life in a particular community. Plans developed today revolve around the design and maintenance of “systems” rather than address programs and issues separately without considering the impact of individual decisions on overall “system” performance. In the future, we should address fire and life safety more in terms of community infrastructure (a “system”) rather than separate programs that may appear disconnected from any common goals.

A three-legged stool is an excellent illustration of how the various components of the “system” depend on each other for overall success (see Figure 1). The stool is only as strong as the people within the organization. These people form the very fiber of the seat, legs, and braces. They are critical to its strength and stability.

The department’s fire and life safety mission rests on the seat of the stool. The stool must be strong enough to support the weight of the mission. The three legs of the stool represent the three line services fire departments provide; they are of equal importance, and each saves lives and property in given situations. They are as follows:

  • Fire prevention (codes). Codes should be developed and adopted to govern existing and new structures and hazardous facilities and contents as well as require built-in protection such as sprinklers. Prevention also includes fire investigation responsibilities.
  • Public education. Develop targeted all-risk public education programs designed to teach people how to prevent harmful situations and how to survive them should they occur.
  • Emergency response. This involves response to incidents such as fires, medical emergencies, hazardous materials events, and technical rescues. It includes nonemergency service requests and emergency (disaster) management.

The braces of the stool represent the staff functions required to effectively support the mission’s delivery. Like the legs, the braces are of equal importance. Each contributes to the strength and stability of the stool (the “system”). They are as follows:

  • Training and preparation-training the people throughout the organization to perform in their assigned roles.
  • Member and system support-supporting the members who actually provide the external and internal services. This includes issues such as appropriate compensation, policy direction, definitive planning, safety, humane treatment, standard operating procedures, and other activities related to making people as effective as possible.
  • Partnerships, relationships, and politics-creating community partnerships to address community issues as well as maintaining positive, productive organizational and individual relationships internally and externally; having an appreciation for (and understanding of) the importance of developing effective strategic alliances; and functioning effectively in the political arena.
  • Infrastructure and equipment-building and maintaining the infrastructure and equipment necessary to be effective. This includes managing facilities, the fleet, dispatch and communication systems, and equipment.

These legs and braces represent the component parts of the fire and life safety infrastructure. When you deliver the mission successfully, you bring these elements together and manage them as a “system.” The stool clearly illustrates that every member of the organization is responsible for playing his part in keeping each leg and brace as strong and effective as possible. Addressing the components of the stool isn’t a choice-a weak leg or brace can create system failure in a given situation. The components all need attention and resources to make the system as effective as possible.

Customers who have received emergency services from their fire department have an interesting way of describing their experience. At some point in the discussion, many will say that the day they had to call the fire department was the worst day of their life. This describes the unique relationship the fire department has with its customers. It also describes the business we’re in: the “worst day of their life” business. Our role is to prevent that worst day from happening through fire prevention codes and public education; to teach people how to survive should that “worst day” happen to them; and to respond quickly and skillfully and in a way that demonstrates a caring attitude when a customer calls 9-1-1 for help. These services, along with necessary support elements, represent investments in people-investments that save people’s lives.

TO PROSPER IN THE FUTURE

Fire departments must connect with the leadership of their community if they are to prosper in the future. Some fire organizations play the politics game very well, but they also know its limitations if it’s their only approach to community involvement and influence. Others have come to realize the importance of adding to traditional political activism through activities such as customer service, community involvement, community leadership, and community influence. These efforts are not separate but are integrated and woven throughout everything the organization is and does. It is much easier to complain about a lack of resources and support than it is to do something productive to improve the situation and gain community support.

We shouldn’t reduce emphasis on fire safety in the future; rather, we should increase our emphasis on the other life safety prevention and public education components of the all-risk system. We shouldn’t decrease our emphasis on firefighting capability; we should increase our capabilities in emergency response skills and services. It takes resources, leadership, management, and support (internal and external) for a fire department to do this.

We are living in a time of constant transition involving the role of government and the need to work together toward critical societal goals. Protecting our communities by providing the safest fire and life safety environment possible is a goal that can generate a lot of interest and support. To garner that support, the fire service must be in the game every day.

DENNIS COMPTON, a 30-plus-year veteran of the fire service, is chief of the Mesa (AZ) Fire Department and former assistant chief in the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department. He is immediate past chair of the executive board of the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA), chair of the Congressional Fire Services Institute’s National Advisory Committee, and a board member of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Compton is a charter member of the Arizona Fire Service Hall of Fame and the author of the book series When in Doubt, Lead (Fire Protection Publications, 1999, 2000).

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